A decision had to be made, and because he was very old she felt she had to make it for him. There was a diagnosis that was irrefutable. There were pressures for and against: if he did not have the operation it was certain death, but that death would probably be slow, he might live for many more months, even years. If he had the operation he might recover and live a great deal longer, but it was a risk because of his age.Read More
The ferris wheel behind her had been there for decades, and stood there now as a famous monument to the unfortunate part of the island. The part of the island where children were dumped.Read More
He was twelve when his parents took him on holiday to the country. Just the three of them, visiting some great uncle in Grafton that he’d never met before. It was rare they got to go away, with Dad’s pastoral work and Mum’s nursing at the home. He wanted to stop in every town along the highway, but asking would make his father angry so instead he just imagined what it would be like to live in Bulahdelah or Coopernook or Kempsey.
The farm was huge and he was the only kid there. He wandered paddocks and watched spooked browns writhe off into the long grass. He climbed trees and picked up beetles, and he stared into the eternal eyes of the Herefords as their mouths worked the grass. But the image that had not left him in twenty years was the night sky on those nights: stars like the powder of crushed Greek marbles tossed into the infinite; scattered everywhere, clumping in places, older than everything. The lazy tentacle of the Milky Way reaching out from the eastern horizon; meteorites breaking up low in the sky. You never got to see it like that in the city, where orphaned stars floated in illuminated filth. He remembered asking his mother, Can you see an aurora from here?
Because even before that holiday in the country as a boy, a photo of the aurora borealis in its most flagrant pomp was the first thing to ever amaze him. It appeared in an old National Geographic, in the days before Photoshop. There was no doubting the veracity of the photo. Above an igneous landscape cloaked in snow, ribbons of green and red unspooled across the night sky. Great curtains of charged photons draped above the high latitude of Reykjavik. God’s universe is amazing, said his mother over his shoulder, crooked hand on his back.
This quiet, intense curiosity had never left him. There was so much to know. If he didn’t explore, he thought, he might as well be dead. He went at things as a dilettante, questing for sensations and impressions. Being an accountant, menial and unsatisfying though it was, left time for exploring other things. He enrolled in courses on a whim and in doing so, abandoned former temporary passions. Yes, he said, I’ll learn French, shelving his banjo in the cupboard. He hardly got past telling the time before screen-printing took control of him, and there he made one t-shirt of his own design before he bit the bullet and enrolled in drama class. Drama had been a particularly long-held fantasy. He’d harboured the notion that throwing himself into that sort of thing would change him, make him less timid, help him to meet new people. In the other classes it was easy to avoid forming relationships, but in drama class he would have to talk to people. Drama class, as it turned out, was a misstep, because he was hardly an extrovert. That was half the idea, but unfortunately it was only a half. He pulled out after a few weeks, and beat himself up about it.
At some time or another he had signed up to an email bulletin from the Ionospheric Prediction Service, which he often ignored. That week he opened it, having recently read an article in the Herald about a mass coronal projection the writer suggested it might cause increased auroral activity on Earth. The email seemed to concur that there was a high probability of seeing an aurora from the Tasmanian latitudes. What would it cost to fly to Tassie? A couple of hundred bucks?
With the October rush still to come it was easy enough to cadge a day of last-minute leave. 'Oh, can you even see the aurora from Australia?' said his boss, Beverley. 'I didn’t even realise.' He was out of Mascot on the second scheduled flight that Saturday, and at the rental car desk in Hobart before nine. The hotel was a converted stone lodge overlooking the Derwent. He asked for a single, south-facing. The woman at the desk handed him a metal key from which dangled a tag with the room number. He remarked to her that you didn’t see that anymore, an actual hotel key, and cursed himself in the elevator for the inanity.
Daytime. He hadn’t considered what to do during the daytime. A drive out to Port Arthur seemed the way to go, until he saw the pamphlet for MONA on the racks in the lobby. He had heard the museum was buried in a hill. To access it you followed a spiral staircase down a narrow tunnel into the earth.
He wasn’t sure what to make of much of the work. He thought of himself as the kind of person who enjoyed art and liked to believe that all work had some merit, and that the challenge lay in gleaning that merit, in deriving a meaning from the most disparate elements. However walking around he was …well, not offended, but cynical. He felt like maybe this was all a big con. He didn’t get it. A machine that was fed food and enzymes produced faeces at the other end. Another exhibit featured chocolate casts of dead bodies and wounds. He couldn’t really see the point, besides to make people talk. Was that all art was? A catalyst for conversation? He spent half the day underground, trying to understand it all. He wanted art to be something more sacred or transcendent, but he wasn’t sure what that looked like, exactly.
When he resurfaced, the day was bright. Back in the city, he walked Salamanca Place trying to digest what he’d seen. The same breeze that tinkled the boat riggings and made the thick looped ropes groan against their moorings was arranging small clouds above into larger and more ominous formations. Tonight was not looking good.
He turned in early. It had been a long day, and tomorrow’s forecast was more promising. If only he’d thought to check the forecast before he booked. He began reading Rabelais and fell into sleep, sentences read and re-read through the blistered vision of fatigue. A little after two he woke with a heavy bladder. Returning from the bathroom he peeked around the curtain to assure himself he’d not made a mistake. No. The sky looked like the scrappy fleece from a woolshed floor.
The next day he slept in late, and over the dregs of the buffet he resolved to drive out to Port Arthur. The sandstone prison blocks glowed as though from within. He stopped to read every information board about the convict days, but more recent events were on his mind, as he knew must be for every visitor there. There would have been nowhere to hide. Even those who come here now suffer, he thought, both for the memory of those gone before and the knowledge that they are here in part to satisfy some morbid titillation. He liked to think he would have known what to do in the café that day, but he knew he would have been as terror-struck as anyone. He was not a brave man.
He returned in the twilight. Through streaky cloud he could see Venus to the northwest. The hotel restaurant was already open for dinner and a few older couples were filing in for an early supper. He found himself envying their easy company. Up in the room he flicked through the channels and tried to plot his night. Dinner, early bed and then up again at midnight? Or would he be better off just powering through?
He woke up sometime after nine. The restaurant had stopped serving. Walking out to the car, his heart sank past his knees at the sight of clouds. He spent the drive hunched over the wheel, looking up through the windscreen for fissures in the cloud. The kebab he found at the end of a row of closed shops was dirty enough to match his mood. He sat in the car, careful not to spill kebab juice on the seats, and listened to an adagio on Classic FM. He wrote the name of it down: Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. How many nights had he spent like this of late, hunched over joyless food, alone? He meandered back to the hotel along foreign streets, taking detours, losing his bearings.
Waiting for the lift, he saw across the lobby that the bar was empty. Yeah, why not? He ordered a cognac and the barman made chat, most of which he managed to deflect. He found a booth over in the corner, near an empty stage, dumping his iPad and room key and unbuttoning his jacket. The whole place was way too dark, and he wondered whether that was for effect or to save money on lighting. He Googled aurorae on his iPad, poring over the photos and videos, sipping slowly at his drink.
'What ya looking at?'
He flinched at the voice. Behind him stood a young woman, younger than him, with curly blonde hair and a freckled unmade face. 'Oh wow, that is incredible,' she said, looking over his shoulder. 'The aurora? Sorry, sorry. I shouldn’t have interrupted. I’m Amy. Couldn’t sleep. Figure a scotch or two’ll do it. You after a drinking buddy?'
He introduced himself and said he was fine on his own.
She beckoned to the bar. 'Gee, the nightlife in Hobart, hey?'
Why hadn’t he gone back to the room? 'I’m sure there are places where things are happening.'
Her smile retracted. 'Was just kidding. You sure you’re not up for some company?'
Getting the sense he was being rude, he gestured for her to sit.
'Shame, isn’t it?' she said. 'All the cloud. I was hoping to see it while I was in town, too. I know it’s kind of luck whether you get to or not. What brings you down here, anyway?'
'The aurora, actually.'
This seemed to impress her, in a way he felt was disingenuous. She proceeded to give him her whole life story, or just about. She lived in Brisbane, worked in arts curating and education and was down as a guest of MONA.
'Have you been?' she asked.
'Ah, yes, I was just there yesterday,' he said, putting his iPad to sleep.
'Did you enjoy it?'
'It was interesting.'
'It’s incredible, isn’t it? David Walsh, he makes millions with this betting system and just, you know, buys art from all over the world, builds an art gallery. As you do. I guess you know all about gambling, coming down here to take your chances with the aurora.'
Was she flirting with him? 'Yeah, I guess.'
'I mean, to me that is so cool. So brave and adventurous. Putting everything down and taking off on a whim to follow your passion.'
'I wouldn’t say that.'
She asked him what caused auroras. 'Aurorae,' he corrected her at first, immediately wincing at his superciliousness. He went on to explain, volubly, how it was the collision of charged magnetic particles and atoms in the thermosphere, and that the particles were born on solar winds, which were attracted to the poles.
Despite the fact that everything he said was correct, his voice trembled with doubt. 'What must ancient people have thought when they looked up at a sight like that,' she said. 'Makes you understand why people invented gods. Sorry, you might be religious.'
Swirling the drink in his glass. 'I don’t know if I am. When I’m sure I’m not, something happens that tells me I should be.'
'Can I buy you another?'
He said he was probably going to turn in soon.
'Oh, come on! Aren’t you going to wait up and see if the cloud clears? There’s a bit of a breeze outside. You’re going back tomorrow, right?'
After much insistence on her part, he relented and asked for a coke. She returned with their drinks and sat, chin on fist, with wide and expectant eyes.
'So listen,' he said, looking down at the table, 'be honest. Are you really an art curator?'
'Well, for you to come in out of nowhere, the only other person here, and say that’s what you do for a living… I just wondered whether you were making that up.'
There was a sliver of pity in her eyes. 'No, that’s what I do. I’m an art curator. Why would I make that up?'
'To impress me. Not, I don’t mean like that.'
'Don’t worry, I’m not trying to impress you,' she said, deadpan, before shuddering with laughter.
'Just that, you know. I work in accounting and when you came and sat down, I did think about saying I was a lion-tamer or something. Something exciting.'
'Well, no way I would have believed that. I mean, look at you!' She nodded at his iPad. 'You had the perfect story right there. You’re an astronomer who’s down here to observe the aurora. You travel the world doing astronomyish things, watching the Transit of Venus on a tropical island or something.'
'I couldn’t pull that off.'
'What would be the harm? Jesus, be a little interesting! I don’t know you. You could say anything and we’ll probably never see each other again.'
He wanted to be out of there. His palms and forearms were alive with the hot prickling of sweat. A stunted laugh forced its way out of his throat. 'I don’t know enough about it. I’m just a dabbler. I’d run out of things to say.'
'And how would I know any different whether something you said was true or not?'
'But I would know.'
She withdrew, frowning. He finished his drink and made his excuses. He had an early flight. He left money for her to buy another drink, thanking her for her company. He was halfway across the lobby before she called after him. 'You forgot your key,' she said, holding it out to him.
Back in his room he changed for bed. He watched some more video of aurorae, great sheets of green and red ghosting across the retina-image screen, and glanced at his Rabelais before burying his head in the pillows.
It was hard for him to know how long she’d been knocking. The clock said 12:46. 'You should see it!' she said. 'The cloud just blew away, voom, vanished! It’s amazing!'
She began to advance excitedly into his room but he stood firm in the doorway. They stayed like that a while.
'Do you want to go out and watch it?' she said eventually. 'Come on.' He was pretty tired, he said. He might just watch from the window. 'I’m sure you need some sleep, too,' he said. He thanked her for letting him know and said he’d be fine watching it from his window.
Putting her hands up, she stepped away with a weak smile. 'Well, suit yourself. Good night. Take care of yourself.'
He closed the door before he had time to apprehend the look on her face, and said thank you once more for good measure from behind the door. He listened to her trudge back down the hall. Yanking the curtains back, he saw it for himself.
Slipping on shoes and buttoning a long coat over his pyjamas, he drove twenty minutes searching for a good vantage, pulling to the shoulder at Risdon Cove, where there were no houses or streetlights. It took a few minutes in the parked car for his vision to settle. The Derwent grafted benignly against the straggled bank, the lights of Hobart encrusting the sweep of the river. The colours jostled and flitted high over the peak of Mount Wellington, whipping and shimmering like radiant veils. He felt as though he existed between two worlds. The sight of the clear open sky was more intense than what he’d seen as a boy in Grafton. Memory was powerful, but it could not compete with the moment. The colours began to run in his eyes and he wiped them off on his cuff. He was alone.
Outer space is not a perfect vacuum, but a tenuous plasma awash with charged particles.
For a brief moment in world history, Sylvia’s mother, Eva McEvoy, was a stenographer for the United Nations. This particle of fact formed the bright glowing core of Sylvia and Jacobin’s mythmaking of the vast black universe that was their mother. Long after she was dead, sucked into the vacuum of the past, this tiny piece of truth sparked flashes of insight across the dark plasma of their shared memory.
The daughter of a diplomat, Eva McEvoy was educated at top international schools in London, Paris, Jakarta and Berlin before finishing her schooling in Canberra in 1968.
Her voice was unplaceable, veiled in gauze: she was fluent in five languages but her words possessed an added something: a ruffle along the edges, a moment more or less on the stresses. And so Eva was always not quite at home, always floating along the surface instead of sinking deep into the undertow. Eva’s tongue held the world’s great languages as if they were tiny marbles of possibility, rolling over her taste-buds, each stretched taut with delicious opportunity.
Eva hated Canberra. Hated the parched December heat that radiated off the black bitumen of the city’s circling roadways, hated the Brindabellas that lined the western skyline, hemming her into this little world. Under that wide blue basin, she was a butterfly encased in glass, subject to a devious child’s whim. When her father relocated to Geneva after she finished high school, Eva found herself swept up and skimming along in his slipstream, towed all the way to the United Nations. Multilingual and with a well-connected father, Eva was a broad-winged bird, finally released.
Shorthand came easily enough and soon she was transcribing speeches on the meeting floor of the UN, falling in love with the way the pen leapt and plunged across the page. She filled notepad after notepad with curving swoops and sharp lines. Before the introduction of tape recorders, the stenographers were the conduit through which history flowed. Eva’s palms pulsed with the coded reportage of her pen – her shorthand, a lockbox of the world’s secrets. She felt she could hold each loaded moment, run her fingers over its bulbous possibility - imagine all the ways it might have played out, all the known unknowns and unutterable truths of it - before ironing it flat onto the page, committing it to stark, unassailable, black-and-white history. Those were exciting days and nights, and for many months in her nineteenth year, Eva felt as if life could be like this forever, buzzing with effervescence, like the gin and tonics she drank with her UN colleagues in the cool dim bars of Geneva.
In 1969, three important things happened, three things that set into motion an inexorable new history:
- Eva transcribed the deliberations of the UN as it brought into force the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
- She discovered she was pregnant.
- The United Nations introduced tape recording.
And so Eva found herself on a plane again, bound again for Canberra. The aircraft tilted its wing and leaned toward the Brindabellas, the patchwork landscape filling the window. As the afternoon edged into night she watched the lines of the city come to life: flickering pinpricks in rows that warped and curved, hunting out the edges of her sight. A weight shifted. The aircraft righted itself and swung back the other way, filling the window with a vast starless sky.
The thrill of Europe gave way to Canberra’s white-hot December days, piled high on top of one another, flat-packed in the slippery heat. Eva’s ankles swelled and rooted her to the ground. Her belly ballooned, an interstice opened within her. Finally after fish and chips one Friday night, Jacobin was born: twenty years to the day after his mother entered the world.
The doctor hauled Jacobin from her body and pressed him into her arms. The baby splayed his new wet limbs over her chest and wailed. Eva, rushed full of oxytoxin, was struck with awe. It was the two of them from that moment on. A new galaxy flamed into life.
Two years later, Sylvia was born and although she became the daughter and sister of the galaxy of Eva and Jacobin, she would never be permitted entry. The best Sylvia could do was to peer out across the dark plasma, searching for the patterns in its scattered charged particles.
Although her mother never used shorthand again, Sylvia knew about Eva the stenographer because of the way the momentous events of a mother’s life become imprinted upon her daughter. Like an inherited memory, or the pain that flares in winter in the re-stitched fracture of a bone. Sylvia understood her mother’s depression because she had grown up in the shadows that it cast, long and unshakeable. She shared her mother’s green eyes and black hair, and she knew every contour of those dark moods – the way they swelled and eclipsed all three of them, submerging their mother slowly into months of molasses. Sylvia knew the slow pace of those days, the gossamer stretch of every morning – the soft click of Jacobin closing their mother’s bedroom door after coaxing her to sip a cup of tea. The clench of Jacobin’s small calves in the half-light before school, as he stood on tip-toes to reach the Nutri-Grain, clattering the cereal into her bowl, acquiescing to her requests to eat it dry, no milk.
When Sylvia held her mother’s hand as a child, she imagined all the other palms that had pressed against it. She imagined hauling herself hand over hand back through history, from her mother to all the strangers in her mother’s mysterious pre-children life. It was the first thing Sylvia noticed when she found her that dark morning: the hand, hanging over the edge of the bathtub. Upturned palm, knuckles bent toward the claw foot of the tub. The hand: white fingers curled over as if ready to unfurl and grasp Sylvia’s small palm.
Later, Sylvia would remember the feel of the bathroom tiles on the soles of her feet, as if she were standing on a glacier. She would remember the dull swoosh of Jacobin arriving at her side.
It was the hand that would haunt her dreams for decades.
I’m sorry Dora, I was asleep. I never would have done it to you if I was awake. This is what I told her. When she sleeps she isn’t there. I don't feel a warm presence next to me. She doesn't dream. She barely breathes. I remember pulling her into me when she wasn't so cold to touch.
She buys books she sees advertised on daytime television. They tell her to tell me exactly what she wants.
'I want you to smile at me when you come through the door at night,' she says, as if there's some guidebook that I wasn't read as a child or a list of instructions taped to the fridge that I missed. She twists her fingers as she says it. Being assertive shows on her face like the wrong shade of lipstick.
The books tell her that our courtship is something we should regularly discuss. To remember why we liked each other, she explains.
'Don’t you mean, at first?'
Dora looks at her hands. She would like to coax it out of me. Slowly, painstakingly, the way you work the head off a zit.
The dog is over-excitable. A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, if you can believe it – a pretty posh name for something that drags its crotch across the floor. Dora combs its ears every day and when I'm not home she lets it up on the bed with her. It chews violently at its underbelly, grunting and snorting until the skin is red. The back leg jerks involuntarily and the bed jolts in the rhythm of its biting. I have the pleasure of waking up to it when it forgets I'm in the bed as well.
I've got a son: Tim, 22, wants to be a musician. At the moment he's a professional waste of space. He has the garage, a girlfriend and four guitars. One of them cost us a bloody fortune as a Christmas present a few years back. All that money and you should see the way he slings it across his back and jumps on his bike. I saw him tipping sand out of it once.
Rosie, the girlfriend, has hair everywhere. A cacophony of curls and dreadlocks obscures her head, half contained by a jumble of rubber bands and diamante clips. But the other hair, it shines on her scrawny legs and surprises me at all the wrong moments. She reaches her arm up to get a coffee cup and my words stop.
'Jeez Rosie,' I say. 'What've you got growing under there?'
She doesn't blush. She laughs. She says, 'Do you want a cup of coffee?' and reaches for a second mug.
I find them drooling over some bits of paper, lying barefoot on the floor. Tim taps a rhythm with the nib of a pen and sings in a quiet, girlish voice. Rosie lies on her front in a baggy singlet top and her tits spill half out onto the carpet.
'For Chrissake,' I say. 'You're twenty-two. Get off the floor.'
Tim scrambles up and brushes the lint from the front of his jumper. It has holes in the elbows. He presses his toe to the ground. Rosie pauses a second too long, looking at him then looking at me, as if she thinks I might be kidding.
I remember a lunchbox lined with greaseproof paper and filled with dark chocolate brownies. It was Sports Day at Timmy's school and Dora and I were there to watch him run in a race. We were sitting on a blanket and Timmy was poking in the basket, checking what she’d brought. He was excited about the brownies. They were made with real chocolate and full cream milk and Dora had sprinkled little silver balls over the top. These days all the old-fashioned food in our fridge has been replaced with low-fat alternatives. Things have a thin taste that you can't quite get hold of. Stingy – that’s what it is. There’s no generosity with butter or cream. It sticks to the roof of your mouth.
Timmy didn't get to taste them that day because he came second last. Eight boys ran before him and only one after him, who needed his puffer when he was done. One of the mothers, school colours pinned to her bosom, saw Timmy sulking by himself. I could feel her eyes on me but I wouldn’t look. Her pig-tailed daughters were sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of her, digging sucked fingers into jam tarts. She muttered to a fatter woman beside her and they both looked at Dora.
Timmy, under his hat, was standing at the edge of the oval pushing lumps of grass with his runners. The shadow of his puny body was elongated like another kid standing over him. Dora wanted to go to him, but I put my hand on her arm and told her to wait, that it would all pay off when our kid was the CEO of some big company and their kids were still eating brownies and coming last.
Rosie knocks at the door.
'He's not here,' I say. 'But you can wait.'
'Can I wait inside?' It's a joke. A joke that acknowledges her hairy armpits and my manicured lawn, the tea-cosy arrangement pulled over her hair and the neutral coloured cushions arranged on our armchairs. I am drinking scotch on ice. I pour her a glass and she sits at the bench opposite me, blocking the television.
'What were you watching?' she asks.
'Who drank all the whisky?' Dora frowns, upending the bottle and pointing her eyes at me.
'Probably Tim. Probably used it to clean the chain on his bike.'
She doesn’t smile. Her collarbones are hard. Her hair-sprayed hair is hard. Her cardigan is peach and nurses her cold bones in cashmere.
Her laugh was something I liked about her during our courtship. I worked in a building near her university block. She studied German and Art History. We used the same parking lot and that was how it started. I used to wait round the corner until I saw her blue Renault pull in, then try to get the spot next to her. She figured it out pretty quickly. Her laugh was a clean, surprising sound. It cracked open that well-composed exterior for a few seconds, long enough to see her teeth in a half-moon smile and a flash of something warm in her focussed eyes.
Making her laugh now is like trying to force open a rusty steel trap and even when it works it’s a polite sound, only from her lips, with no chest or throat or heart in it. It sounds like something small being rattled in a can.
I know what took the laugh out of her. Tim doesn’t know it, but he might have had two brothers or sisters if the laugh hadn’t been dragged out from her. Twice in three years. The second time she even got to be big and swollen with it. Tim was the lucky one, though Christ, she had to lie down for nine weeks to keep him from falling out. All that luck and all that trouble and he doesn’t even try for a half decent job.
The dog has fleas. Dora holds it at arm’s length and walks outside. She starts stripping the beds – first the guest room and then our room. The covers come off all the cushions. I almost feel sorry for the dog. It scratches and cries at the wire door, stopping occasionally to knaw at itself behind the legs and cock its head at Dora when she tells it to be quiet. She wears rubber gloves up to her elbows and her hair pulled back in a stumpy ponytail.
'I'll strip the bed in Tim's room,' I offer.
Dora looks up from scrubbing. She holds her dripping hands out over the basin.
'Okay,' she says. 'Thanks.'
Tim and Rosie are out somewhere. The garage smells of their unwashed clothes. Rosie stays out here with him. I hear her car clatter into the driveway late most nights. I pull back the doona to get at the under-sheet. There are no condoms in Tim's drawers. In Rosie's zip-up bag there is a pot of moisturiser, four tampons, three pens, hairpins, cigarette papers and some used tissues. The moisturiser smells like roses.
When Dora does the washing, she puts everything from our pockets into a bowl by the laundry sink. I find her frowning over something in her hand, holding my trousers in the other.
'What's wrong with you?' I ask when she sees me at the door.
'Nothing.' She swallows a hard lump of saliva. 'I just can't imagine what you'd need bobby pins for.'
'They're probably yours,' I tell her. 'Nothing to frown about,' and turn go.
'But still,' she says and cocks her head like she's been left outside, 'I can't see how they'd get in your pocket. It just seems strange, that's all.'
My sigh echoes in the small laundry and I lean in the doorframe to wait.
'I just thought maybe…'
She moves to close the door and I'm holding my breath.
'Well… I know they can be used to put on wigs.'
'Dora, what the hell are you talking about?'
'I've found some things,' she continues, cheeks flushed, lips tight around her teeth. 'A hair ribbon in the back of your diary and other things as well.'
Her thin hands are purple. Her nails pick at each other.
'Well you can forget about that as quickly as you thought it up,' I tell her and open the door to get out into the hallway.
I come home and Dora's got the thing up in bed with her. Her nightgown hangs over the chair like the tired body of something. She’s naked and she’s got the dog under the doona, nursing it close to her sleeping body, breathing into its neck. The head is on her arm.
'Dora,' I say and she startles. 'Wake up. The bloody thing's jumping with fleas.'
Before I know it, it’s sleeping in bed with us every night. It gets in between my knees and curls up there, so I can't move or roll onto either of my sides without making a big production out of it. The body of it makes me too warm. I try to kick it out of the way but it just sighs and bites itself and wriggles back to nestle into me.
She's chopping carrots. I sit with my back to the kitchen enclave, dozing off as the six o'clock news begins. She is chopping slowly, distractedly, like a clock ticking too loudly at night. The sound of the knife hitting the board echoes off the tiles, waking me when my chin stoops to my chest. Tim comes in the door and the dog goes berserk for him. He takes a piece of carrot from the bench and chews it with his mouth open.
'Rosie said she saw you at the pub,' he says to me and the clock stops ticking.
I'm at work and I'm scratching. Under my desk I'm tugging at the legs of my trousers, digging my fingernails into my calves and clawing up the front of my shirt. Twenty minutes before a meeting, I can't take it anymore. I leap up from my desk and one of the smart-arses from accounting calls, 'What's the hurry?' as I push past him to the toilets. I burst into a cubicle and tear off my trousers and shirt. The hair on my chest is festering with them. I scratch until I bleed.
The doctor parts my chest hair, lifts my arm and checks underneath my testicles. The skin is scabby and hot. Little pieces of white, scratched flesh hang off my thighs. He is wearing gloves. I make a wisecrack about having to see a vet next time instead of a doctor, but inside my guts are turning over and being eaten hollow by tiny black bugs. I can’t bring myself to tell him about the dog.
'My son's girlfriend,' I say, 'I must have got them from her.'
Winner of the 2013 Viva La Novella Prize
When Jessica, a recently divorced mental-health carer, meets her new patient, Eloise, their lives quickly become entangled. The boundaries of their roles begin to dissolve and questions from the past are uncovered, revealing the fractured histories that brought them together.
On the last day of his freedom, the great Grygory Vrevca went to visit his daughter. The authorities had traced him to the basement of a building in Prague, a damp apartment with bare brick walls below a hosiery shop. The police surrounded the place, but Grygory predictably escaped – he and his bodyguard Kovac knocked through the ceiling, prized up the floorboards, and swung themselves into a scattering of startled customers in the shop above. He bought a pair of the best silk stockings for his daughter then walked calmly out of the shop, right past a line of officers who were watching their colleagues hack through the apartment door with an axe.Read More
‘On every new thing,’ writes W. G. Sebald, ‘lies the shadow of annihilation.’
I was in Grade One, my brother, kindergarten, and we were trailing Mum on the way home from school. She had to wait for us at intervals. The sight of her receding back pulled me along, but my feet were leaden. I had spent recess and lunch swinging on the monkey bars and now the heat was syrupy and my backpack, heavy.
‘Come on.’ She stopped, hands on hips, staring into space.
We turned down a street that wasn’t the usual route from school. A low fence had a wisteria winding around its entire length.
I was supposed to be hurrying – even my stubby-legged brother was ahead of me – but I stopped at the wisteria because there, at eye level, was a butterfly. Its wings were fanning: the brilliant orange, the black veins and white circles. A wanderer, I knew it was called. I held my breath. The space between Mum’s back and me was growing but this no longer worried me. I stretched my arm to the mauve mess of flowers that the butterfly was resting on. It stepped – one leg then another, then two more – aboard.
When next Mum called out I was full of that familiar feeling: the anguish at the gap between realising that a grownup didn’t understand and knowing how to make her see. But she must have noticed the way I was standing, my bowed head and careful concentration. I held my arm to my stomach and stretched my other hand, like a shield, before the butterfly. It stayed there, sitting on my arm, even as I started to walk.
Now I know that it was sipping the vapour of my skin with its feet, tasting me. I have also learnt that it is easy to coax a dying butterfly onto your finger. I read this just a week or so ago and, even across the twenty years that have passed since that butterfly stepped onto my arm, the fact was wrenching. So that’s what it was all about. It wasn’t that the butterfly had seen a yearning to commune with it that it had chosen, in the moment before it extended that first leg towards me, to trust.
I had an excuse for going slowly, now, and could not understand why Mum, with her appeals for me to walk faster, would not allow for the fact that there was a butterfly on my arm. There was a butterfly on my arm! It stayed there, on my arm, for the kilometre home.
While we call them wanderers, in their native North America they are known as monarchs. In 1870 three cyclones plucked enough of them from Vanuatu or New Caledonia and blew them across the Coral Sea to Australian shores. They survived on arrival because milkweed, on which the caterpillars feed, had already been introduced. Before then they had reached the Pacific Islands by flinging themselves across the ocean, the lucky ones hitching a ride on ship sails or riding wind gusts to a speck of land, untold numbers of others dying in the attempt.
I took the butterfly to show and tell in an ice-cream container stuffed with flowers. My classmates, cross legged on the floor, passed the open container around. When the butterfly flew in fright to the window and started zigging up and down in a frantic stutter, the teacher panicked.
‘It’s okay,’ I soothed as she waved her arms about and navigated desks and chairs. ‘Don’t worry, it will come to me.’ I stood on a table and reached as high as I could until my hand was beside the butterfly. It stilled. Then it turned towards my hand and climbed on.
‘What’s its name?’
‘It doesn’t have a name. Butterflies are wild.’
The next day I couldn’t find the butterfly. I checked in my room behind the porcelain lady and lacquered box, between the agate and thunder eggs I had collected from the mountains out my window.
By evening, I was despondent. The butterfly had left me. I couldn’t see that it was following its nature – wandering away – just that it had chosen to leave me behind.
I knew that looking at the stars might help with this low feeling, so, just before bedtime, I peeled back the blind a little. The speckle and froth of the Milky Way was distant, cold.
Something in the corner of my eye caught my attention. There, clinging to the back of the blind, was the butterfly. Ha!
I put my finger before it. It clambered aboard.
You know how this ends; I knew how it would end, too, because the butterfly was sluggish, its wings barely fanning as it sat on my dresser, where I placed it before bedtime.
When I woke it was taffeta, an old leaf. I sobbed.
Later, Dad’s eyes lit up: How about, when we bury it, we place it between the pages of an old telephone book? It seemed an odd, clinical idea; I was sure it would prefer the cool soil on its wings, but I could see Dad was pleased with himself and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
I knew, by the day’s end, that I was trying Mum and Dad’s patience, could feel that they were tiring of soothing and back-patting me.
‘Come on, Sweet Pea, it was just a butterfly.’
But it wasn’t just a butterfly. Why could grownups never understand? It was a butterfly that chose me.
In the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, there were dancing plagues in Europe. The afflicted couldn’t perceive the colour red. Some jumped until their ribs or femurs broke. It went on until the exhausted dancers fell to the ground.
Word had it that dance was therapeutic, that the dancing itself would cure the sufferers of their uncontrollable desire to do the same, and so authorities ordered music to be played so that the illness would run its course. This only encouraged more people to join.
Drums were banned; they caused the greatest frenzy. The major outbreak in Strasbourg in 1518 started with one woman on 14 July. After four days, thirty-four people were infected. Then two hundred. Within four weeks, more than four hundred were dancing, some of them to the death.
Paracelsus named the affliction chorea lasciva and wrote that the dancers struck with this illness were forced to dance. This was groundbreaking thinking, at the time. It was widely believed that the cause was spiritual, that the dancers were possessed by demons or enchanted by saints, but Paracelsus rightly believed that the origins of the malady resided in the suffers themselves. He speculated that the illness began in people’s ‘laughing veins … for their life is inflamed and is boiling within them’.
But it is said that the best dancers are not those who are beset with dancing to the death, but those who believe they are going to die.
Have you heard about the melancholia that can plague early adulthood? When it afflicted a young Plains Indian man, his warrior culture gave him a socially sanctioned, honourable way to confront it. His family would try to talk him out of it, but if he was set on his fate they would accept his resolve. He would vow, to the tribe, to meet death on the warpath – to race out recklessly to enemy lines for the duration of a warring season. In the height of youth and beauty, this is what he would decide. He would refuse the slow wasting of age, would be brave and foolhardy about the end and, with all the impatience of the young, would rush to meet it.
Because he was removing himself from society, he no longer had to respect its rules. He could snatch food from any cooking pot, and he could lie with any woman who offered herself to him without fear of retribution from her husband. Imagine the aura around him, the poignancy of the man to die. Admit it: you would suddenly notice this young man, this particular one among all the others, and would find it hard to pull your gaze from him.
You would cook special meals for him. You would encourage your woman to go to him. You would slip from the heavy embrace of your man as he slept, and patter through the dark to him.
He adorned himself richly, danced for anyone who wished to watch, was the centre of public adoration. And he danced beautifully: his pledge to seek death made his movements more focussed and innovative because any dance now could be his last. From somewhere he wrested great reserves of energy and endurance, and increasingly unexpected rhythmic variations; the spectacle of his youth and beauty was on display and I dare you to tear your eyes away.
When killed, he was mourned as deeply as any other.
I woke in Melbourne, at dawn, to a distressed friend’s call: ‘Algo muy malo ha pasado, Eli, algo muy, muy malo’ – Something really bad has happened, she repeated between sobs.
Percy and I had met Maite and Raul two years earlier; Maite and Percy had a few English classes together, and she and Raul had moved into a house right by us after emigrating from Venezuela.
Maite was funny and warm, and Raul was the kind to fix his gaze on you and listen with utmost concentration. A year after we met, he came over one night. He told us to take a seat on the couch and, once we did, stood before us.
‘What have we done?’ he asked.
Percy and I looked at each other.
‘We haven’t seen you for ages; tell me, I want to hear it, what’s the matter?’
We explained our movements during the two weeks since seeing them, and he breathed out.
‘You’ve got to understand,’ he said, ‘I worry because you’re our only family, here. We have no-one else.’
Wrenched out of my grogginess, I told Maite we would be right over; we were living a few suburbs away by then, so Percy and I took a taxi to her house and, murmuring in the backseat, conjured possibilities. It had to be something she’d just happened upon. Maybe she’d woken and come downstairs to discover that they’d been robbed?
On seeing the ambulance outside, I thrust the money into the driver’s hand and ran. Two paramedics barred our way; before we went in, they had to tell us something. Maite is inside, they explained, and they just had to be sure we were okay with him still being there – I don’t understand, I interrupted. They continued: It’s her husband, Roll (who the hell is Roll?); she found him on the lounge room floor this morning; there was nothing we could do.
We stayed with Maite until Raul’s family could get to Australia. We helped with funeral arrangements, Skyped with the family, contacted the embassy, wrangled with Immigration, sat with Maite, cooked for her, borrowed a car to drive her to the coroner, slept on her couch. I didn’t sleep in their bed with her because I thought it might still smell of him, and there was so little of him she had left, but each night I worried about that decision, thought of her alone in their bed above us.
The coroner did further tests. There was hope of an answer, at one stage, when they mentioned that recent studies had shown that the neurological and cardiovascular systems are more interlinked than previously thought, that maybe his epilepsy had caused his heart to stop. But they did more analyses, and it wasn’t that. It wasn’t a heart attack, or a seizure, or drugs, or anything else they had the ability to test. There was no comprehensible cause. His heart just beat, like all ours do, and then, without warning, it stopped.
We weren’t able to change our flights to South America a week and a half later. Our plan had been to separate so that Percy could spend some time with his family alone and I could do some solo travel down to Tierra del Fuego but, when the time came, the thought of being separated made me despondent.
Yet despite my trepidation, travelling alone and without a plan to that desolate, wind-swept place was, in a way, a relief: the features of that land – the stunted-tree-covered islands, speckled with snow; the expansive pampa, its occasional native geese, flamingos, ostriches and guanaco the only sign of life (they always seemed so alone, and so poignant for being so) – seemed to be an outer equivalent of the contours my thoughts were tracing. On British fisherman, Sebald wrote, ‘I do not believe that these men sit by the sea all day and all night so as not to miss the time when the whiting pass, the flounder rise or the cod come in to the shallower waters, as they claim. They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.’ Down at the tip of South America, the farthest point reached by humanity since we ventured out from our birthplace in Tanzania, I took comfort in something similar.
White dwarfs were once thought to be new stars because of their flurries of activity, their brightening, dimming and explosions, when their temperature can spike to 100-billion degrees and for weeks just one of them can outshine an entire galaxy. But now scientists know that these stars are not coming into being but are drawing to an end: the fireworks are their last hurrah, their grand finale.
It was almost Christmas. We were visiting Percy’s family in Peru, held fast in the embrace of their love and routine.
We sat down to lunch. There was a bang; Mamá cried out. It had sounded like a massive hunk of concrete had slammed onto the roof, but the roof hadn’t collapsed so it hadn’t been that. Papá’s face showed surprise, then a gradual, unwilling resignation into understanding. I followed him up to the roof. I could tell by his careful gait that he suspected something, that he was seeking confirmation. Furls of smoke were unravelling two blocks away.
‘Puuu,’ he lamented, forehead furrowed. He brought down an arm, motioned it towards the scene, bowed his head, shook it.
‘¡Amor!’ called Mamá from below. ‘¿Qué ha pasado?’
He made his way down the steps, past the gnarled cacti and tattered magenta bougainvillea, and turned on the radio, not for confirmation because the view from the roof had shown him what had happened – the slightest thing, he lamented, can set the powder off – but to hear whether everyone had survived unscathed.
A crackly voice announced it: a fireworks workshop, operating at full capacity for the festive season – the time of hurried hands and late nights, of quickly spraying the anti-static, of making shells that will adorn pyrotechnic towers hauled into the street or will be attached to a papier-mâché bull held above a young man’s head, spitting sparks either side as he runs through the throng, or will become whirlygigs and straight-shooting bursts of bright to make you gasp, your gaze fixed on the light dance, heeding its demand that you celebrate, right now, that you be part of this crowd, joyous for as long as the light and the night holds out – a fireworks workshop, in its busiest period, had blown apart.
The explosion took with it the workshop owner and hospitalised his son. Right there, two blocks’ distant, in the time it took for you to smile your thanks for the meal and pick up your fork.
In Alice Springs at Australia’s No. 1 Truckie’s ReUnion, after the National Road Transport Wall of Fame Award Presentation, Hayseed and I danced. His friend, my mother’s partner, had been inducted, and eighteen of us had flown up to witness it and celebrate his achievement. There were 500 at the dinner, seated around tables with burgundy and yellow balloons and serviettes supplied by Shell Rimula oil.
Hayseed has a voice that rasps out. He adopts a pose – arm squared on the table, shoulder towards you, head tucked low – and delivers a roll of jokes, his face scrunching, features drawing to the centre of one of the most expressive mugs I’ve ever seen: it’s part bull dog, part teddy bear.
He and his wife, Avalene, raised two sons. My mum’s partner told me once that their eldest had been in the backseat of a car that had crashed. He had spent six weeks in intensive care, one day plainly on the mend, the next sunk into critical again. After six weeks, they lost him.
I was dancing with my aunties and cousins at first, near the stage. Hayseed joined us. That he was on the dance-floor was the first surprise. That he was so light on his feet, this compact, heavy-set truck driver, was the second.
It’s always a tug-of-war, for me, between my love of dance and my self-consciousness. That night, it was a while before I started to believe my internal entreaties that no-one was watching, but it happened with him. We responded to each other’s moves with more moves, and the conversation continued like this, a constant sparking of surprise and delight, pulling some inspired variation from who knows where, the music thrumming through us. He didn’t say anything or show much expression, in contrast to his usual self.
When the band finished its set, we went back to our tables. But after that, when the music started up again, a hand was stuck out before me.
Mum told me later that he had said to her, ‘It nearly killed me – all I’ve poured down me throat has come outta me quicker than it went in – but I’ve got to have another go. I’ve just got to.’ And we did, for the final set, like old timers for the slow songs and separate for the fast ones; I’d never seen him like this, quiet and concentrating and absent, somehow, not puckering that face in preparation for entertaining you.
He thanked me, and I thanked him, but it was the look of mutual surprise and the unwillingness to let on how much fun we had had that struck me later. I know it was mutual because he came to our room first thing the next morning to thank me again. And when Mum responded that I hadn’t wanted to go to bed, he drawled, ‘Ahhh,’ shaking his head and drooping in bodily disappointment before barking, ‘Ya what?! You mean we could’a kept on?’
He said to Mum, repeatedly, at different moments during the day, ‘My-oh-my that girl of yours can dance.’ I can’t, not really; don’t get any fancy ideas of my dancing. It was just the joy of it, of both of us letting loose.
Later I was at the airport, heading home a few days before everyone else. Mum called. Could I see Hayseed and Ave anywhere? Could I find them and sit with them for her? Her tone rising.
While we had been dancing, their surviving son had been in the passenger seat of his newly purchased second-hand car, his girlfriend driving. Through a roundabout, the car sped up, and the girlfriend’s leg pumped frantically as they sped towards the tree. On impact, the airbag broke her nose. His side airbag failed.
A tooth was smashed out. There was a gaping hole in his skull, through which his brain was visible. Two of his vertebrae were crushed. Another vertebra was chipped; a rib, cracked. He was in a coma awaiting an operation to cut out some of his hipbone to put around his spinal cord, and to put three plates into his skull.
‘Jul,’ Hayseed had said to Mum when telling her, voice cracking, that their son had broken his neck in a car accident and was in intensive care – or maybe he said this later; it must have been later – ‘Jul, we must’a stepped on the grave of a busload’a Chinamen.’
Wayna Qhapaq was the youngest son of Tupaq Yupanki – tenth Sapa Inka of the Inka Empire, fifth of the Hanan dynasty, who died suddenly without naming an heir – and Mama Ocllo, namesake of the wife of the first Inka and Tupaq Yupanki’s principal wife. His mother and uncle quashed the claims of another potential heir and appointed a regent to tutor him in the ways of government until he was old enough to take his place as the eleventh Sapa Inka.
His father had expanded the empire until it was, at the time, the world’s largest; Wayna Qhapaq continued this campaign, pushing the frontier north to the Ancasmayo River so that the empire stretched two-million square kilometres and had perhaps twenty million subjects. He loved Quito, some said even more than Cusco, the empire capital to the south.
It is said that Wayna Qhapaq had a gold chain made to celebrate the weaning-and-hair-cutting ceremony of one of his sons, Waskar, and that it was as long as the chief market place in Cusco, had links as big as a man’s wrist and took more than two-hundred men to lift.
While he was fighting in the north, Wayna Qhapaq received word that the south-eastern frontier had been invaded by Guaraní speakers, who sometimes crossed the hot, semi-arid Chaco Plain and raided border settlements for bronze tools. Wayna Qhapaq dispatched a general to drive them away.
South of the Guaraní territory, almost ten years earlier, the Charrúa had borne witness to the arrival of Juan Díaz de Solís, who named the River Plate in 1516. He sailed one ship upriver to the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná rivers with two officers and seven others. The Charrúa attacked the party, eating Díaz de Solís but sparing a boy, Francisco del Puerto, because of his age. When he learned of the attack, Díaz de Solís’s brother-in-law took charge of the waiting ships and returned to Spain, leaving del Puerto behind. The Charrúa wouldn’t have to worry about more Europeans for another ten years, when Sebastian Cobot arrived, rescued del Puerto and built the Sancti Spiritu Fort. (The Charrúa attacked the fort in 1529, set fire to it, killed most of the soldiers and destroyed a ship. When Cobot returned from an expedition to find the fort razed, he high-tailed it back to Europe.)
But the Europeans, whether it was those around the River Plate or the ones to the north of the Inka Empire, had unleashed something else.
After sending his general to control the Guaraní, Wayna Qhapaq undertook another expedition to subdue isolated pockets of resistance, during which he was pushed back from further expansion by the Shuar, who shrunk their enemies’ heads to the size of oranges to harness their souls. During this campaign, he learned that an epidemic had swept through Cusco. He left immediately for Quito, from where he would depart for Cusco to deal with the calamity. But he arrived in Quito at the same time as the epidemic. His wise men prophesied evil because, during a Festival of the Sun, an eagle was harassed by buzzards and then fell out of the sky.
In the early seventeenth century, an Andean chronicler recounted a legend of how Wayna Qhapaq then contracted what was probably smallpox: And at the time for eating there arrived a messenger cloaked in black; he kissed the Inka with much reverence and gave him a pputi, a box, locked with a key. And the Inka commanded that the same Indian open it, to which he replied that, forgive him, the Maker had ordered that it be opened only by the Inka. On hearing this the Inka opened the box, and from it fluttered butterflies or pieces of paper, scattering until they disappeared. This was the pestilence. Butterflies – those delicate, pretty things – were butterflies of sorrow, were harbingers of disease and death, unleashing untold sorrow and destruction into the world. And pputi, the only Kechwa word in the passage, means ‘box’ but, just as in English the word ‘creature’ is related to the word ‘creation’, it is linked to Kechwa terms for sadness, melancholia and affliction. Wayna Qhapaq, last of the great Sapa Inkas, died a death by butterflies.
I’m writing when he calls out: ‘¡Eli! ¡Necesito tu ayuda!’ The faint trickle and hiss of the shower stopped a few minutes ago. I pause, hands hovering over the keyboard, wondering whether his words are a kind of reflex, whether he’s lost something and, while searching, has called out for help as a matter of course. To go or to stay?
Then I hear my hairdryer start up. He has a cold; he’s going out for work drinks that he wishes he could avoid. When I bought the dryer a year ago, I had to learn to use it, to coordinate the brush in my left hand with the dryer in my right – who’d have thought it would be something you had to practice. So I slip from my chair, go to him.
‘You’ll have to crouch down,’ I tell him. He lowers himself onto his knees. I start pulling my round barrel brush through his hair, aiming the dryer onto it.
‘Tell me if it hurts.’
‘Why would it?’
‘The heat, or my aim,’ I explain. ‘If it’s hot on your scalp, tell me.’
I do it piecework. First the back’s lower layers. Luxurious is the only way to describe his hair. If I were blessed with half of it, half as thick, I would be ecstatic. It’s raven, shot through with greys that make his sister sigh and say that somehow his greys are not like hers; in his hair they don’t look like something you want to hide, they look like rain.
His forehead presses against my stomach and I look down onto his crown. The heat from this hairdryer now, in early July, is enough to lull me into drawing out the task.
He grows impatient, but there is so much of it, so I start on the other side, pressing the side of his face against me. He’s still, again, and I keep drying.
Finally, his patience ends and he says, ‘Ya está ya,’ and stands.
He looks in the mirror. His response is immediate: he lets out a long, appalled gasp. ‘Pendeeeja.’ I look at the reflection of some hair-luscious heartthrob who has time-travelled from the seventies. He presses his coif down and I bend over, barely managing to gasp between my laughing. ‘¡Pendeja!’
I try to tell him that no, it wasn’t intentional, I didn’t realise, I was just drying…but each time I catch sight of his reflection I burst into renewed laughter, which is not helping my case. My stomach hurts. I try to smooth his hair; he wets a comb and pulls it through it, I tell him it looks fine, not to worry, it’s…laughter. ‘Pendeja.’
How do I recover from this? How do I go back to writing when I’m so full of this feeling, when I have to defeat the urge to bar his way when he’s about to leave, when I’m overcome with the need to keep him here with me. What’s a relationship but watching someone leave, again and again, encouraging that someone to go and then pining all the while?
If you make sure to sleep, every night, with an ear pressed to your loved one’s chest, do you think that this will be enough? That what beats within will be forced to keep on for you?
The hottest part of the damn day and Katleho is out in the thick of it, caught between the expanse of the reckless blue sky and the flat rocks, with the sweat crawling down the back of his neck and slick down his sides. He’s off on a wild Springkaan chase, because they need the eyes in the sky of the insectoid micro-drone if they are to protect themselves, protect their resources.
He tugs at the Scorchd Afrika! T-shirt soddenly clinging to his skin. It’s become a uniform, a way of telling Us versus Them, now that they’ve resolved Us versus Us. He doesn’t even like EDM, he thinks.
The heat has its own gravity, smashing down in a way that stuns everything, even the fat desert flies. He squints against the light, trying to spot the give-away gleam of the fish-eye lens of the micro-drone, hardwired into a grasshopper, with just enough brain-stem left to interface with the micro-circuitry. Maybe that’s all they are out here, Katleho thinks, bleakly, hollowed-out grasshoppers mindlessly responding to stimulus.
The gun holster chafes in Katleho’s armpit. He’s not stupid enough to carry it tucked into the back of his cut-offs. Time was he wouldn’t be seen dead in cut-offs. Time was he’d never held a gun.
Everything changes. Oh, you won’t believe how fast it changes.
‘Phase Three’. Words he wishes he’d never heard, everyone bandying the phrase around the camp, breathless with importance and the footage coming down the x-fi.
Eleven days ago, they’d pulled up to Scorchd Afrika in Jamie’s Audi A4, driving past the rusted sentinels of the gas drills that someone has strung with fairy lights, into the laager of converted shipping containers. A music festival in the middle of the remains of an old fracking opeation in the former nature reserve.
‘Helluva place for a party,’ Katleho sneered to Jamie, swatting idly at one of the buzzing drones that zoomed in to film them.
‘Open mind, baby,’ Jamie sang back at him and went to hug some bouncy girls in day-glo catsuits. That’ll teach him to date trendy white boys.
Helluva place for civilisation’s last stand.
Hippies, yuppies, techies, artists, aggressive young okes looking to get messed up, maybe score some chicks. Allsorts. Like the sweeties. He could do with some of those now, Katleho thinks, using his shirt to mop up the sweat on his face. Imagine: just walking into a café and buying a bag of multi-coloured liquorice over the counter.
They’re down to bugs now. He can get over the popcorn crunch, but the spiny legs that catch between his teeth still make him gag. Katleho wasn’t built for this. None of them were.
They got the news on the x-fi, before the Internet went down because the Internet, like civilisation needs power. Accident in the Thokoza coal plant, too much power being drawn – the coal plants couldn’t sustain. The grid overloaded. Eskom moved to Phase Three, which sounded innocuous enough – a little bit of load-shedding to keep things going. What they don’t tell you is that Phase Three means Eskom phone the army and tell them to ‘get ready’ because if the load-shedding doesn’t work, the whole grid goes down. It takes two weeks to come back online. That’s fourteen days of chaos in the dark. Get ready.
Scorchd had generators with petrol for a week, but gasoline couldn’t keep the x-fi connections up for long. The news on the Internet was bleak. They all huddled round while DJ E-lise projected the live-feed from her retina input onto the white fabric wall of the medical tent. There were scenes of people being shot in the street. Riots, looting, a necklacing on the Sea Point promenade. They all marvelled over the images of Sandton City in pitch blackness with people moving through the mall, the army searchlights lighting shattered windows puking up luxury handbags, abandoned in favour of canned food and bottled water.
Half the camp bailed on day one. They got in their four-wheel drives and their combies and their buckies and drove away until Crazy Eddie, the artist, got hold of a gun somehow and threatened to shoot anyone else who tried to leave. With his shaved head, he looked like a poor man’s Bruce Willis in bright orange Crocs and a camouflage kilt, but a man with a gun is a man with authority, even wearing stupid shoes. He got them all breaking down the towering wooden sculptures they were supposed to burn and turning them into fortifications. ‘It’s about preservation now, people,’ he pronounced, sitting on a leaning throne made out of car tyres.
On day two, the music died. Crazy Eddie shot DJ E-lise in the head when she complained. ‘Power is life,’ he said and told them to bury her under a pile of rocks.
On day three, the x-fi finally went down, taking the news with it. They still had the springkaan drones, a hundred-strong swarm designed to broadcast the party to the outside world. Eddie had the techies turn their cameras outwards, patrolling the perimeter, but their range was limited and their batteries were dying – their grasshoppers fell one by one, but not before they’d captured human shapes moving out there. Eddie told them they had to ‘go dark’. Katleho had no idea where he got all the military jargon. Video games maybe.
On day six, they took all the drugs and screwed for forty-eight hours straight – a baccanalian cheers to the apocalypse. They didn’t count on waking up the next day, hungover, reeling, a little bit crazy. Crazier. Or maybe it’s the heat that climbs into your skull and bakes your brain.
On day eight, they started planning the insurrection. A Mfecane of their own, dividing along tribal lines, not Moeshoeshoe versus the rednecks, but IT guys and hardcore okes from Midrand against the artists and musos and the hey-shoo-wows.
Katleho begged Jamie to stay out of it. They didn’t have any skills, not like the others. What part did a media manager and a junior investment banker have in an uprising? But he wouldn’t listen. Jamie had a strange light in his eyes, like a splinter of the bright broad sky had got caught in there. The desert does things to you.
There was fighting. Other people had brought weapons, in defiance of Scorchd party policy. They scrambled over the wood fortifications. They turned the sharp edges of mechanical sculptures into weapons. He can’t think about it too much – about stabbing the blonde girl with the dreadlocks in the throat and the fount of blood that drenched him like sweat.
But no one was as mental as Crazy Eddie. No one was as ruthless. The insurrection was squashed. The pile of rocks got bigger. A lot bigger. Jamie got a bullet in the gut trying to take control of the water tanks. It took him eight hours to die. Katleho buried him in there with the rest of them. He cried till his eyes dried out.
Crazy Eddie was very forgiving. He said it wasn’t Katleho’s fault Jamie was deluded. But now he would have to prove himself. There was one springkaan still transmitting, but it was down, somewhere to the east, among the rocks. They needed the drone. To find more water. To keep an eye out, because it was civil war out there and the drones had spotted people moving around the perimeter. Strangers.
‘Do you understand me Karabo? I know you’re bummed out about your friend, but it’s Phase Three, man.’
Eddie gave him the gun, placed it in his hands and patted it, like it was a baby needing burping. He had him pegged; that Katleho wouldn’t correct him on getting his name wrong, that he wouldn’t try to turn the gun on their leader.
Now, Katleho scuffs at the dirt with his designer sneaker, which is splitting at the seams. He wanted to live. Is that so bad? When this is all that’s left? He tries to imagine what the rest of the country looks like right now. Famine, death, cannibalism. He imagines the swanky little galleries and coffee shops in Braamfontein on fire, raging gun battles through Constantia, private security armies with machine guns taking control of the fenced off suburbs. What’s worse, he wonders, being ruled over by ADT or Crazy Eddie?
He swipes at his dry eyes with the back of his hand, too thirsty to be able to summon tears, and then he spots it: a glint in the grass. It’s the chip embedded in the dying grasshopper’s abdomen. The faceted glass of the lens is a cool, hard, all-seeing eye. He hopes Eddie is seeing this on their last monitor running on carefully hoarded gasoline. He hopes he gets extra water rations.
He scrambles up the koppie and falls to his knees in the dust beside it. He scoops it up in his hands, the metal wings of the micro-drone buzz in his hands. He could kiss it. His salvation. He looks towards the burning white orb in the sky and, sees, from this vantage, a shimmer of road in the distance, and a shape that he’d mistaken for another rotting drill bit – a water tower. ‘Thank you, sweet Jesus,’ he mutters.
‘It’s Jerome, actually,’ a stranger says, stepping up over the rocks, blocking out the sun, like a cowboy, with a floppier hat. Katleho shades his eyes, to take in his aviator sunglasses, his khaki uniform, the gun on his hip, the Parks Board insignia stitched on his epaulets.
‘You one of those party people?’ Jerome says, his voice disapproving.
‘Yes. No.’ Katleho is not sure what the right answer is. He wants to run to the road, to climb the water tower and sink into the cool black depths and let the water cover his head and never come up.
‘We’ve been trying to get hold of you.’
Katleho jabs the drone at him. ‘Don’t even try. The springkaan sees you. We got guns! You leave us alone! They’ll shoot you if you come near!’
‘Why would you shoot?’
‘The war, you idiot.’ Katleho is hysterical. ‘The civil war. Chaos! Cannibalism! ADT! We don’t have enough to go around! It’s safety first.’
Jerome takes off his sunglasses and folds them away, carefully, into his pocket. ‘You have heat stroke my friend. You need to get some shade and some water.’
‘Eskom! Phase Three!’
‘Oh that.’ Jerome says mildly.
‘Yes, that! All that!’ And all this. The insurrection. Lord of the Springkaans.
‘Ag, man,’ Jerome takes out rolling papers and sprinkles tobacco into the fold. ‘There was some kak around that, but we came through.’
‘We came through?’ Katleho repeats dumbly.
‘Sure. Come on, man. Are you kidding me?’ He sticks the roll-up between Kathelo’s lips and lights it for him. ‘This country doesn’t fall apart that easy.’
The red ink was running dry. As each sheet came out of the printer and piled itself on top the last, Pickles the cat looked greener, his eyes taking on a zombie-like hue. Leanne had already resigned herself to never finding Pickles, figured he probably did look more like a zombie cat – mashed by car tyres – than the blurry cat in the photo taken when he was a kitten. But Madeleine was determined that her pet would return, if only they tried, so Leanne printed off twenty-five copies of the poster.
She’d added the last part, about a reward, at her daughter’s insistence. Madeleine had offered the contents of her piggy bank and her Bratz doll collection. As worthless as they were, Leanne knew she was trying. She also knew there was no harm in offering a reward that would never be collected. Her bank account was in overdraft until payday and she’d been paying for chocolate bars and chewing gum – confectionary aisle consolations – with her credit card.
They sat at the dinner table, Leanne and Madeleine, and slotted half of the posters into the clear plastic sleeves they’d bought for Madeleine’s school projects. It had been raining in the afternoons, and they didn’t want the posters to become sodden and unreadable. Madeleine swung her legs under her chair and sang to herself as she put the posters in the plastic, the rhythmic nature of the task distracting her, momentarily, from her missing cat. Leanne watched her daughter. She was, objectively speaking, a sweet-looking child – Leanne had been told so – cute, with a flossy brown hair and with the sort of quick smile sought out by casting agents for cereal ads. But when Leanne looked at her daughter, she was mostly struck by how much she looked like her, when she was a child, and sometimes when her daughter was hugging her leg, looking up at her, Leanne felt the same frisson of discomfort that she’d feel when someone noticed her catching her own reflection in a store window or an elevator mirror.
Pickles had never gone missing before. He was not an adventurous cat – after Leanne first brought him home as a kitten, she had tried to show him how to use the newly installed cat flap to go outside. Leanne first opened the flap with her hand and held it open, calling Pickles, but the cat wouldn’t come. So then she tried to sticking her head through the flap, showing Pickles how it worked, and that it was nothing to be afraid of – but after several minutes of this, Pickles showed himself to be far more interested in licking himself clean, while Leanne wasn’t entirely sure the neighbours weren’t watching through their first-floor window.
Nevertheless Leanne set out to convince her daughter that Pickles had now acquired an adventure-seeking streak. It was a temporary plan; she would figure out what to say to her daughter once a little time had passed, when things weren’t so immediate. For now, she made up bedtime stories about Pickles, imagining that he had set off like a student on a gap year. ‘Pickles is in France at the moment,’ she told Madeleine as she lay in bed that night, smelling of shampoo and toothpaste, ‘climbing the Eiffel Tower. They’ve turned it into the biggest scratching post in the world. He was doing some modelling, in the ads for cat food, but now he’s been recruited by the government as a spy cat. He’s good at it because he’s sneaky. He types messages in code with his little paws. I heard he’s going to get a medal for bravery, and then he’ll come back home.’ Leanne smiled, knowing these were the best stories she’d ever invented.
‘Make sure she does her homework but don’t be too hard on her.’ Two days later Leanne stood in the doorway of her ex-husband’s new house, dropping Madeleine off after school. ‘She’s still pretty upset about the cat.’
‘I told you, you shouldn’t let the cat outside.’
‘You said he’d kill the native birds, David. You didn’t say he’d go missing.’ When they were in love he’d been Dave, but now she only ever called him David, each use of his name an opportunity to scold.
He hadn’t been a bad husband, but over time she had found his once-endearing qualities pathetic. When they had met, his house had been decorated ‘ironically’ – a hamburger phone, a fishtank TV. In her early 20s she had found it whimsical, amusing. Now she thought it had been defensive, the battlements of a man who had no taste.
She had expected, when she left him, that he would fall apart for a while. She had been the person who would find his keys when he lost them. She was still surprised that he was doing so well, looking so well, his eyes clear and bright; his house, from what she could see from the doorway, free of novelty appliances.
‘Don’t forget, netball practice on Wednesday afternoon.’
‘I know, I know,’ he said.
Leanne didn’t like the drop-offs, didn’t like sharing Madeleine with him – but that had been the problem when they were married, too, her unwillingness to share. When they met she had loved carelessly. She was always reaching out, arms open, eyes closed; like a vine that had outgrown its post, tendrils blindly searching for something else to hold onto. Invariably her love would prove too intense for her partners, even her friends. She had never been anyone’s entire world before – every person came with a past, a first kiss, an ex. Unless that person is your daughter – but even then, a daughter came with a father. Leanne discouraged Madeleine from mentioning David so that on the days they spent together she could be convinced she was her daughter’s everything. The drop-offs broke the illusion.
At times she felt her daughter’s feelings, by proxy, and they were stronger than her own. The most vivid and immutable were her daughter’s humiliations. Her fears she could dismiss as childish; her joys – these were felt but only in passing. The time she hugged the leg of a stranger she mistook for her mother in the supermarket; period blood on her school uniform; her brother catching her with one of his dirty magazines – Leanne’s own embarrassments were formative and when she summoned her memory they felt as new and offensive as the day they had happened, even those that were 30 years old. She tried hard, then, to prevent embarrassment of her daughter – not by assuring her daughter that these things were unimportant and nothing to be embarrassed by, but by trying to pre-empt any humiliations and avoid them. The latest toys and clothes would be hers, she would never know the embarrassment of being the last to join a trend.
And when her daughter inevitably became embarrassed by this or that, Leanne’s second-hand embarrassment was amplified by the shame she felt as an inadequate parent.
What Madeleine had really wanted, that Autumn two years ago when the separation was more like an experiment, a trial, was a puppy.
‘Who’s going to train him?’ Leanne asked. ‘I don’t have the time, honey.’
‘I will, I will!’ her daughter said.
She had said she’d think about it but she didn’t, not once, until the day two weeks later when she came to pick Madeleine up from Dave-David’s house, and her daughter had kicked out, screamed, pounded, sticky-faced with tears, saying between sobs that no, she didn’t want to go to Mummy’s, she wanted to stay. It had later become apparent that the tantrum was nothing but the result of low blood sugar, a comedown from all the convenience-store donuts and pastries he’d been feeding her. Leanne knew her ex-husband wasn’t trying to win her daughter over by feeding her junk – in her absence, David had returned to eating like a bachelor. His body could bear it – he’d even lost weight, the sugar and carbohydrates fuelling his rediscovery of night-time indoor soccer, and she suspected he had been involved in other indoor activities – bachelor exercises – with some of the spectators. Leanne couldn’t help but feel a competitive impulse. She would not ply her daughter with sugary treats. But a pet was a possibility.
Dogs were needy: she didn’t want all of Madeleine’s love doled out to a dog. A cat was more independent. Later, after seeing Pickles walk out of Madeleine’s room with a bow around his neck, ears back and eyes narrowed, quite aware of the indignity of it all, she realised she’d been wrong, that it didn’t matter what the animal’s capacity for love was, her daughter would love it just the same, completely.
Leanne took the back streets home, avoiding the traffic, manoeuvring the four-wheel drive through the grid of streets to bypass the stop signs. She could see that the posters in the plastic covers had not withstood the rain as planned; the condensation trapped between the sleeves soaked the paper into a grey sludge. Those left exposed had fared better. The black ink clung to the paper, but the blue ran off, leaving only a yellow wash where Pickle’s photo had been.
As she wondered absently whether she’d be expected to remove the posters after a certain period of time – whether it was a civic duty, her name and number, after all, were right there on the paper – she pulled into the driveway and there he was, not green or yellow but a full-colour Pickles. He sat at the front door, unmoved by Leanne’s arrival, languorously licking himself. He had slipped his collar but otherwise gave the impression that he hadn’t been lost at all. He had simply been having some time to himself. He didn’t even follow Leanne inside.
She poured the last of a bottle of white wine into a glass. The man at the bottle shop had placed it in a paper bag and she’d left it in it when she brought it home last night, so no-one would know how much she’d drunk. Not that anyone was keeping an eye on her drinking anymore. The dinner party invitations had dropped off over the past few months, after she’d given up on phoning in apologies for her behaviour – ‘Sorry for acting like such a crazy person last night!’ she’d say in her voicemail messages. ‘Someone must have slipped something in my wine – I only drank a bottle!’ She’d admonish herself for singing too loudly at the dinner table, before realising that it was the fact that she sang at all that had so offended her hosts. Perhaps her friends were getting boring, though. They’d joined the Parents and Citizens Association, after all.
She’d been working on those problems. She’d been reading a couple of self-help books and had written a list of goals. Leanne wanted to be more patient with her daughter, to let Madeleine sit on her lap regardless of whether her legs were falling asleep, to watch her perform the dances she and her friends made up in the playground. Leanne folded Madeleine’s clothing, and felt a sudden rush of affection for her daughter, the kind that quickly came upon her from time to time. In times like these she thought back to Madeleine’s birth, how her world had narrowed and expanded all at once. She had thought, at the time, that she would like to have more children, to chase that high – but she had never gotten around to it. Her love for Madeleine had proved such a distraction that she didn’t see that her husband was leaving.
She went into Madeleine’s room to put away her things, and found five sheets of printer paper with near-identical crayon drawings of a ginger cat, PICKLES written on each of them. Leanne took the pictures into the kitchen and put them in the bin. See, she thought. All sorts of things can be dispensed with.
Leanne found Pickles at the door, waiting to be let inside. Madeleine would often say to Leanne, ‘He’s so happy!’ when he purred as she patted him. Leanne knew Pickles’ emotions were far more complex than that. In the inner life she assigned to him, Pickles was waiting at the door, refusing the cat flap, demanding Leanne’s assistance, in order to make a point.
Pickles circled Leanne’s legs as she spooned food into his bowl, but she wasn’t fooled – his attention turned to the meal before it even hit the floor. He was too distracted to notice Leanne had taken his carrier down from the cupboard.
Pickles had always meowed on car rides. Leanne used to talk to him on the way to the vet to reassure him. ‘I know, Pickles. It won’t be long.’ This time she just turned up the radio.
Leanne drove two hours, from a place where the buildings pushed further apart to where they pushed back together again. For a time she forgot Pickles was there, in his carrier in the back seat. In the driver’s seat and somewhat tipsy she reclaimed the feeling of freedom she felt when she got her first car, driving these same roads but in the opposite direction.
She pulled up at what might have looked to others like an empty lot, but she knew to be a park. It was an unembellished square of dead grass, but as a child it was where she played house when her own home became inhospitable. She opened the carrier and urged Pickles out. He gingerly put one paw out, then another, before running off into some dark corner. She picked the carrier up and closed its door, stopping to look around. She wondered if anyone would take him in. In the darkness across the park Leanne saw Pickles’ eyes catch the light briefly, reflecting something of herself back. She did not think herself cruel. Her survival instinct had kicked in. She hoped Pickles’ would too.
On the way home Leanne listened to Love Song Dedications. She tried to call one in for her daughter, but the line was busy. She sang along to all the songs regardless, her head clear and her petrol tank half-full.
My pinkie finger came off on a Monday.
Even worse, it was the first of the month, which meant paychecks and food stamps and a guaranteed slammed store all day long. Until Bev got in at eight, it was just me and very pregnant Gloria against fourteen pallets stuffed in the back room and freezer, not to mention the bread and an overstock of produce, which never happened when I placed the order, please note. At forty-six I could count to ‘too much’.
I couldn't say when I lost the pinkie exactly. It was there when I dragged up my pallet jack. It was there when my sciatica flared up and shot down my leg like lightning. But when I pulled on the store's coat and gloves to start working the freezer, I felt fabric where fabric shouldn't be. The empty fifth pocket gave me a sad waggle ‘hello’. My coffee was still kicking in, so I stared stupidly at it for a minute.
Gloria pulled up a dolly of dog food. ‘What's up, Reuben?’
‘I don't know yet.’ I pulled off the glove. The rest of my hand was there, black, like it's supposed to be, but after thumb and three fingers came a pink shiny spot like a burn. I showed her.
She gave a nervous snort. ‘What happened to it?’
‘I don't know.’
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Are you gonna go home?’
The right answer was yes. But urgent care wouldn't open for another two hours. Emergency room would take three. After years of showing up with shooting back pain it didn't make sense to lose a day's wages over what didn't hurt and wasn't bleeding. And what was anybody supposed to do about it? Put it back on? Where was the 'it' to put back?
Besides, Gloria was hitting me with deer eyes. I'd be leaving her with no help.
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘I got tomorrow off. I'll try to see my doctor then.’
‘Just be on the lookout. Don't want somebody running a buggy over it.’
‘Of course.’ Out she went with the dog food.
After hoisting a few twenty-pound boxes of chicken, a hot comet of pain down my leg every time, the pinkie was the least of my worries. Who loses a finger and finishes the workday? Reuben, that's who.
At lunch I called my doctor. Damn hard to describe the problem over the phone. No, I hadn't cut it off. No, I didn't know where it was. No, I was stone cold sober. Eventually they mustered a slot for me in the morning.
After that I pretty much forgot it. Filling out pick sheets was fine. Handling money was fine. I had no trouble scrapping boxes for two hours before close, and then I left the rest to Tammy, the second-shift manager. She always left the store looking good, and she never stuck me with ten boxes of tomatoes.
Thank God for Tammy. Forty-two, if I remember right. Whip-smart. Not too tall, but imposing. Hula-girl butt, rare for a white woman. Grown daughter in Greenville, South Carolina – nice young lady, I met her once. Tammy was the best I ever had. Cheating on her was the dumbest thing I ever did.
It was Tammy that took one cold look at my hand and said, ‘Get that looked at, Reuben.’
‘I got an appointment.’
‘I know you, Reuben.’
‘I know you know me.’
‘All right, then.’ She tied up her long dark ripple of hair. She smelled like gardenias. I bought her that perfume. ‘Don't let it slide.’
Nobody found the pinkie in the store. I searched my Honda, from the store bags in the back to the pile of mail in the passenger seat. I got home and tossed the house. Under the couch I found a quarter, a pen and the back of an earring (Tammy's, no doubt), but that was all.
It wasn't in Tammy's old garden, either. Hornworms had turned her tomato plants to doilies on sticks. I picked off a leaf and crumbled it.
I went back inside, beered up and stripped down. Toes, ten. Veins, varicose. Back, enraged. Wrist, tendonitis or carpal tunnel, hadn't been checked. Penis, decreasingly predictable. Anyway, nothing else was missing.
I ate two cold tacos and went to bed.
In the morning, I reached for the snooze button and missed, knocking the clock to the floor. I reached for it again. At the end of my right wrist was a new shiny pink spot. The hand was gone. Dizzy and sick, I tore through the sheets and looked under the bed. Nothing. Nowhere. I banged the stump on the bedside table. It didn't hurt. It didn't feel like anything.
Someone took it.
The doors were locked, but the kitchen window wasn't. The sill dust smudged outward and the screen dangled at the corner. Outside, right between the overgrown azaleas, was a semicircle of five dents. Fingertips. Motherfucker. I took a picture with my phone to have something to show the doctor. Anything.
Showering one-handed was a hassle. Shaving was worse. Driving was damn near a nightmare. My Honda's front CV joint complained on left turns. Clunk. Four hundred dollar fix. Clunk.
At the clinic, a thick and handsome black lady nurse smiled as she checked me in. ‘Why are you here today?’ she asked.
I showed her my stump. ‘My hand came off.’
Her expression went dead. ‘Are you seeking pain medication?’
‘No. It doesn't hurt.’
That seemed to perk her up. She took my vitals. ‘Blood pressure, one-sixty over a hundred. That is a major concern.’
I waved my abbreviated arm. ‘No, this is a major concern.’
She led me to an exam room to wait. Dr. Sohi came in, Indian fellow, nice enough guy, gleaming watch and perfect beard. He asked the same questions as the nurse like a cop trying to catch a lie. ‘Why are you here?’
‘My hand came off.’
He snapped on rubber gloves and examined the shiny spot where my hand should be. ‘When did this happen?’
‘This morning. I woke up and it was gone.’
‘Have you had anything to drink today?’
‘No, sir. The pinkie was gone yesterday, and today went the rest.’
‘Mr. Jessup, it is not possible for a body part to come off in the way you are describing.’
He inspected the tight shiny knob of my wrist. ‘Beautifully done. Did you have the surgery here?’
‘Look, doctor. I was at work just yesterday. Everybody saw I still had a hand. I can call one of 'em if you like.’
He flipped through my chart. ‘Are you seeking pain medication?’
‘Doc, I'm not a druggie. I'm not a crazy. Something bad is happening to me, and I need your help. Will you just, I don't know, take some blood or something?’
‘You want tests?’
‘All right.’ Dr. Sohi parked at the console and typed. ‘Let's get you tested.’
The day was so muggy, there was sweat on me before the clinic door shut. On my phone there was a message from Tammy: ‘Hey, Reuben. Hope your doctor straightened things out. I was making the schedule for next week. Are you going to need time off? Let me know. Bye.’
I felt tempted to go to the store, to see her and show her, but she had enough to deal with. Phone was better. I dialed the store. ‘Probably you should call Kernersville,’ I told her. ‘Find someone to help open.’
‘When will you be back?’
‘Might be a while.’
‘Do you need anything?’
I paused too long.
‘I know you,’ she said.
‘If I need something, I'll ask.’
A couple of hours searching for my symptoms on the Internet left-handed. I found leprosy and ebola and plenty of God-awful pictures but nothing that looked like me.
I killed off a box of stale cereal and watched everything I had on DVR. Prone on the couch, I let blue TV light wash over me until I dozed off. For some reason I dreamed about Tammy. Nothing sexy. I was in bed with her, resting on her shoulder while she slept, rising and falling with her every breath. It was beautiful.
I woke to sour breath and a stiff neck. It took me a moment to remember why I was sleeping on the couch. I sat up fast. My t-shirt sleeve was empty.
The room tilted sideways. I crushed the fist I had left into my empty shoulder socket and rocked myself back and forth. It couldn't be real. It didn't make sense. How did this happen? Who's doing this to me?
I called up Dr. Sohi's office to tell him my arm was missing. He didn't call me back. I packed a suitcase and book and drove one-handed to the medical center. Then I had his attention.
He had me meet him at the main hospital on Thorne Street, where he showed concern but also an impolite enthusiasm. Convinced by blood work and skin swabs that I was not carrying a flesh-eating anything, he admitted me to a narrow yellow room on the orthopedic floor. For hours he directed other doctors past me like a museum exhibit. They came in every color, but they all introduced themselves the same – big smiles and specialties – ‘oncology,’ ‘surgery,’ ‘endocrinology’.
‘Have you been outside the country in the past three years?’ asked one.
‘Are you on any prescription medications?’
‘Do you have any family we can call?’
‘A son in St. Louis,’ I said. ‘He works a lot. Leave a message.’ I gave them his number to try. That'd take a miracle. ‘A sister in D.C. I guess she should know.’ I gave them hers, too. ‘But I got an ex-girlfriend close by.’ They jotted this down. ‘What do you think I've got?’
‘Too soon to say,’ they said.
Doctors left with their pens and paper, and in came the nurses with tubes-and-needles, choreographed like a messed up Nutcracker. It felt like a dream until a clinician crept in to ask for my insurance card. Ain't nothing on earth interesting enough to get looked at for free.
I charged up my phone and read my book – a Tuskegee Airmen history I'd been meaning to read for ages. Whenever I got up, my back felt like a million bucks. When was the last time I'd had two days off in a row?
The night nurse, beefy white kid, did his rounds at ten. I asked if he could lock the door. ‘Our doors don't lock, Mr. Jessup,’ he said. ‘What's your concern?’
‘I'm afraid of something else getting away from me,’ I said.
‘I've worked here seven years, and I've never lost a body part.’
‘Keep that streak.’
Once he was gone I used the sheet and my teeth and toes to bind my left arm up to my body. No way was I losing anything else tonight. I stared at the ceiling for an hour before I managed to fall asleep.
In the morning my left leg was gone to the hip.
I screamed until every nurse on the floor ran in to shut me up. The sheet was still knotted around my waist, which confused them, but I hollered ‘my leg, my leg’ until they remembered I'd had two the day before. When I struggled to break loose, I lost my balance and hit the floor. With two limbs missing, my body was pure stranger.
A nurse stepped up. A needle flashed. I was still hollering when I blacked out.
When I came to, a brand new person was sitting on my bed, a laywer-looking white woman with smooth silver hair and basset jowls. ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Jessup,’ she said. She sounded like a recording. ‘My name is Ellen Klein. I'm an administrator here. How are you feeling?’
‘You find my leg?’ There was an IV in my left hand, a clip on my finger, and a slow drip of something pleasant from the bag above me. My tongue felt fat. There was a wrong feeling in my body, like when you know a bone is broken.
‘We have not, but we're working hard to understand your condition. Mr. Jessup, I have some news that will be difficult to hear.’
‘While you were unconscious, you lost the other leg.’
‘You also lost an ear and an eye.’
Jesus. I ran my hand over my face. Where my left ear had been, there was a bald circle and a hole. Where my left eye had been, there was a smooth crater of skin. Lid, lashes, brow – gone.
‘You were left unattended for eight minutes,’ said Ellen. ‘In that time, whatever condition you are suffering from claimed those parts.’
The legs of my hospital pants were knotted up and safety-pinned to my waistband. I had to look three times before I understood it. ‘They're gone?’
‘That is the case. However we hope to understand your condition and stop its progress. We are transferring you to a federal facility in Atlanta where they specialize in anomalies. They can also begin rehabilitating you with prosthetics. In order to request the transfer, we'd like you to sign this.’ She handed me a clipboard. I riffled through it left-handed: insurance paperwork, credit information, transport approval. In the back were five-pages in tiny type. ‘What's this one?’ I asked.
‘That's a form limiting our liability for the loss of your legs.’
I stared at her. Her basset hound face didn't flinch. ‘What happens if I don't sign?’ I asked.
‘Your transfer would be delayed. It could take us days to scramble another flight.’
‘I don't have days.’
‘We realize that.’ Ellen pushed the clipboard at me.
‘I need to call somebody first.’
Ellen rolled her eyes. Hospital types got no patience.
As soon as she could dig up someone to switch shifts, Tammy showed up with magazines, a casserole and a tin of brownies. She took a look at me and clapped a hand over her mouth. All the pink ran out of her face. That scared me worse than anything. ‘Jesus Christ, Reuben. What's happening to you?’
‘I don't know,’ I said. ‘Nobody knows. But they're sending me to Atlanta.’
‘Does it hurt?’
She sat on the bed where my legs would have been. Her gardenia smell made my heart ache. ‘They're going to fix you up. You're going to beat this. Beat the hell out of it.’ She leaned close to my face. ‘Jesus.’
‘It came out when I was asleep.’
‘I wish I'd been here. I would have caught it and stuck it right back in.’
‘I bet you would have.’ I took the liberty of squeezing her shoulder. Lord only knew how long I'd have a hand to squeeze with. ‘I'm sorry, Tammy. I'm so sorry. I should never have let you get away.’
She looked away. Dead relationships made her squeamish. ‘What do you want me to say? I'm not mad anymore. You know that.’
I rubbed my remaining eye. ‘Tammy, I hate to ask—’
‘Will you look after my house while I'm gone?’
‘Take my keys.’ I gestured to my suitcase. ‘In there. Got my car key and remote and all.’
‘Hang on.’ She manhandled my shirts and underwear, and it gave me an intimate thrill. ‘These?’ The ring she held up had just three keys on it – my house, my shed, and the store.
‘No car key?’
She rummaged. ‘I'm not seeing it.’
‘Dammit.’ I thought about the five fingerprints between my azalea bushes. Motherfucker just takes everything. ‘Could you see if my car is still here? It'll be in the overflow lot. Third row.’
‘Thank you, Tammy. I owe you big.’
‘What else is new?’ Cautious of the IV, we shared a warm handshake. ‘Call me tomorrow,’ she said. She left.
The nurse helped me to the bathroom and, seeing as it might be my last chance, I took the opportunity to shave. I fogged up the mirror so I wouldn't have to see my chopped-up self in detail.
‘Lock the door,’ I asked the beefy kid nurse.
‘Our doors don't lock like that.’
‘Please. I'm begging you.’
‘I'll see what I can do.’
Tammy called to say no one could find my car. Just the sound of her voice was a balm. ‘You gonna file a report?’ she asked.
‘Yeah. I'll call somebody in the morning.’
Motherfucker took my Honda. Good luck turning left.
Ellen Klein came back with her clipboard. I gave her my sad left-handed signature as many times as she wanted it.
I did crunches and played on my phone to stay alert. Around four in the morning my eye got raw and heavy. I sat up and stretched. I pinched my cheeks. I shut my eye tight and rubbed it.
Suddenly a frantic beeping went off next to my head. I opened my eye in time to see my pelvis jerking around below my navel. It pulled away, sealed itself off like a bubble from a wand, rolled off the bed, and hit the floor with a splack.
I tried to sit up and slipped. The heart monitor dangled and the IV spat on the tile. On the floor, my loose arm scissored like an inchworm to catch up to the pelvis. The arm sprang up and threw back the bolt on the door, and both my parts skittered out of the room.
The alarm raged. Nurses stormed in. They hoisted me and tended to my vomit and shouted at each other.
‘They went out the door,’ I told them.
‘My arm. My body. Find them. They're leaving.’
New nurses appeared with towels and tubes, pushing and turning me. ‘Sedate him,’ said one. Someone flashed a hypodermic.
I quit struggling. ‘I'm calm. Look how calm I am. Please don't knock me out. Please.’
So they didn't. There'd be nothing left if they did.
They strapped me to a gurney and rolled me onto a shiny yellow medical plane with Dr. Dalton Cho, an Asian doctor with chipmunk cheeks and a peppy voice. ‘You're in good hands,’ she told me. ‘We're going to do everything we can.’
I stared at the bulkhead. Chills washed over me and my heart drummed a hundred beats a minute. I hallucinated Tammy, naked, dabbing sweat off my brow. I smelled her gardenias. Dr. Cho brought me a puke bag. Without my pelvis organs, my blood was filling with muck.
We landed at dawn. A couple of burly guys wheeled me to an ambulance. They unloaded me at a CDC satellite facility. The building was sunk in the earth like the crown of a round-head screw.
They set me up in a room the size of my house. The couch and lamp and table were all Band-Aid beige. In a high-backed chair in the corner, they stacked what I had left – suitcase, book and phone. I'd need help to use any of them.
A nurse came and drew blood.
‘Your large intestines and kidneys are gone,’ said Dr. Cho. ‘You'll be fitted with an ileostomy bag and catheter for dialysis.’ She pulled up a chair and showed me what looked like a hot water bottle and a toy stethoscope. She held up tidy colored-pencil drawings of how it would look: a red balloon knot in my side and a dangling pair of tubes in my chest – two new windows for my insides to peer out.
‘Surgery is scheduled for ten o'clock,’ she said.
‘You'll have to knock me out.’
‘What's going to keep more of me from coming off?’
‘Our team will be watching you carefully.’
‘How are you going to put a part back that doesn't want to be there?’
She smiled and squeezed my hand. ‘We'll do everything we can.’ She stood to leave. ‘You want someone to sit with you?’
‘No, thank you. Could you get me an earpiece for my phone?’
‘I'll see what I can do.’
My prospects were dialysis three times a week, five hours a pop. Sickness always. Privacy never. And for what? I wanted to call my sister, my kid, but to do that I needed help. I tried to roll onto the nurse call button, but I only knocked it off the bed.
I wished to God for Tammy.
I cried some.
The sun hadn't come up yet. My face felt raw and itchy, but I had no hand to rub it. It would be an easy thing to sleep, to close my eye and count backwards until the rest of me disappeared.
I took a few deep breaths and settled my head down. In no time, sleep crept up and lapped my edges.
A rapping sound startled me awake. In the high-backed chair across from me sat a man. Not a man. My suitcase lay at his feet. He wore baggy blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. My blue jeans. My hooded sweatshirt. This guy wore them different, though – younger, looser, like a teenager.
‘You,’ I said.
He gestured to himself. Voilà.
My teeth chattered. ‘You.’
He wagged a finger at me.
I flailed sideways to get at him. He put both hands on his gut and mimed a laugh. He stood, and he seemed taller than I ever was. From the neck of his T-shirt stuck a brown mannequin head with hard black plastic hair and one dead painted eye. The other eye was mine--lids, brow and all. He pulled a bottle of Visine out of his pocket, tipped his head back and poured a drop in.
Then he pulled a hoodie string to swivel the head toward me. He lurched when he walked, a man-puppet of me-parts.
He picked up my phone and sat next to me. With his callused right hand--the first one to leave me--he shoved me prone on the bed. He smelled like pine needles and vinyl and fried food. I bit at him in self-defense, but he pinched my nose until I saw stars. On the phone, he typed into a text-to-speech app that read his words in a robotic female voice: ‘We are tired of being taken for granted.’
‘There's no 'we.' You are me.’
‘No. We are us. Not even Mouth is you. See?’
My jaw throbbed and my tongue stuck tight to the roof. My mouth drained dry. All my parts broke off from my mind, tongue and lips and throat and muscle and bone, prickling and aching like dead limbs. I choked.
Puppet-Me nodded. Our tongue came loose and flooded so much spit into our mouth that I had to cough it up.
‘You're sick,’ I said.
‘How sick? Sick as a heart attack? That's what Heart was about to do. When Heart stops, we all stop. Heart is in terrible shape. We were so afraid.’
Inside my chest, in sympathy, my heart stutter-stepped.
‘Hand got angry,’ Puppet-Me said, flexing its hand in front of my face. ‘Hand said it wanted to be free before its time was finished. We said, 'No, no. You can't leave the rest of us.' But Hand said it had to try. And it was happier alone than it had ever been with you.’ Puppet-Me tapped his plastic chest. ‘All of us who could leave without hurting Heart, we tried leaving, too. All of us felt the same.’
‘So that's it? You're going to run off and do whatever the hell you want while I'm in this hospital bed?’
‘No. It's bad for Heart not to have us. And it's stressful for us not to have Heart. We're going to join together again.’
‘But when one of us has had all it can take, it will go have fun for a while.’
My mind balked. My face went cold, then hot. ‘You're going to keep doing this to me?’
‘When? What parts?’
‘That depends on you. Perhaps none. Perhaps all. Perhaps we will leave you nothing but Heart and a Lung and part of Brain to suffer on a hospital bed.’
I bashed my head into the pillow. ‘You can't do this to me. How am I supposed to work? How am I supposed to live?’
‘We will provide for our needs. Yours are not our concern anymore.’ He sat on the bed next to me. I tried to yell, but Throat shut tight so all that came out was a whistle. ‘You think we're unfair,’ said Puppet-Me. ‘We learned unfairness from you.’ It touched its plastic forehead to mine, and a shaking came over me like I was falling down a ladder. I blacked out a second, and when I came to I was whole again, wearing Puppet-Me's clothes. The mannequin torso was lying on the floor.
I sniffed the neck of Puppet-Me's shirt. It smelled like gardenias.
When Dr. Cho came back with two nurses and a gurney and found me packing my suitcase, she gave an unprofessional little yell. Over her protests, I checked myself out of the facility.
The Honda keys were in the pocket of Puppet-Me's jeans. I had a five-hour drive to get to Tammy.
No one picked up when I called the store. It was packed, as always, but Gloria stood up at her register to hug me, pregnant belly and all.
‘Oh, my God,’ she said. ‘How did they fix you?’
‘Long story,’ I said. ‘Is Tammy here?’
‘Yeah, in the back.’
I hurried through the plastic flaps into the back room. From the radio, an Usher song echoed off the concrete walls. ‘Tammy?’
‘Over here.’ She came out of the cooler dragging an empty pallet jack. ‘Reuben.’ She ran over and hugged me. Gardenias. ‘Thank God. What the hell happened?’
‘I tried to call you.’
‘Did you?’ She pulled her phone out of her pocket and flipped it open. The screen was black. ‘That's weird.’
‘Has anything strange happened since you came to see me?’
‘Stranger than this?’ she asked, gesturing to my body. ‘No.’
‘Anything. Door get unlocked? Window get pushed open?’
She walked the jack to a pallet of soup and picked it up. ‘No.’
‘Anything at all.’
‘I don't know. Last night I had a dream you came over.’ She shot me a look. ‘Don't flatter yourself, though.’
‘Was I wearing these clothes?’
‘I don't remember.’
‘What was I saying?’
‘It was a dream.’ She threw up her hands. ‘Dreams don't make sense.’
‘Tammy, I love you.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, Lord.’
‘I'm not telling you that to get back together. I'm telling you because you should hear it.’ My throat tightened and my nose stung. ‘You are a good, good woman. You deserve to be happy. I'm lucky to know you, and I wish I'd been better to you. I don't know what's going to come of me tomorrow, so I wanted to tell you today. I love you. I love you and I don't want anything from you.’
‘Please shut up.’
‘Okay. If that's what you want, I will.’ I took a respectful step back. I felt twenty pounds lighter and twenty years younger.
Tammy held up a hand. ‘Reuben, you've had a hard week, and I'm glad you're better, but I'm way too busy to deal with this right now. Go home. Get some rest. We can talk about this later.’
She was right. She was always right. ‘Okay,’ I said.
I headed toward the bright and boring store floor, full of fluorescent lights and grannies and marked-down tomatoes. It was the most glorious and frightening place I'd ever seen. Not an inch of it was under my control. Not a second of it was guaranteed. My life was nothing but a tour from this fleeting moment before the next one barreled along to smash me. .
Something in Tammy's voice made my neck prickle. I turned back. Near the meat cooler, she sat bent over on her pallet of soup. I'd never seen her sit down on the job before. ‘Tammy?’
She looked over her shoulder at me. Her lips were grey.
I edged closer. She held up her right hand.
Her pinkie was missing.
My dad’s sister Yasmine is the reason we’re moving to Lakemba. About five years ago Yasmine’s husband, Haroun, told Dad there was a house for sale in his street and we went for it. The kids at Alexandria Public School have told me there are lots of Lebanese people in Lakemba. ‘You’ll be going back to where ya came from,’ says Matthew Forbes. He calls it ‘Leb-kemba’.
‘But I’m not a Leb,’ I say.
‘You’re a sand nigger,’ Matthew says.
‘But I’m not black,’ I say.
I sit in my room with my brother and do up my shoelaces. I’m wearing black leather shoes that came with the suit. I get up off the bed and walk into the living room. The glitter of diamantes shimmering in the light is everywhere. Tayta is in a big purple dress with diamantes around the collar. Aunty Nada is in a light blue dress with diamantes down the sleeves and around the waist. Mum is in a golden dress with broad shoulder pads and diamantes from top to bottom. She has the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and carries it along from person to person. My Uncle Ibrahim and Uncle Osama are both in black pants and white shirts. Uncle Ibrahim’s shirt is short-sleeved. He has his long straight hair slicked back with gel. He’s clean-shaven but still has the black residue of a beard marked along his face and down around his throat. His cheeks and jawline are thin, like he’s sucking them in, and his entire face shines from his aftershave which smells like a combination of cigarettes and whisky. He usually looks old but today, because of the aftershave and because of the gel, the wrinkles along his face shine like knife wounds, especially the ones that crawl down from each side of his temple. Uncle Ibrahim has been trying to keep his energy under control. His gaze is low and he keeps his veiny arms close by his side. It’s as though he’s a nine-year-old boy who’s set fire to the school and is trying not to draw too much attention to himself for fear that he might get caught. He says to Uncle Osama, in a way that tries to come out slow, but comes out fast, ‘Za-bit shah-raq,’ which means, ‘Fix your hair’. Uncle Osama’s hair is thick and bushy, like Beavis from Beavis and Butt-Head. He twirls it through his fingers and says to Uncle Ibrahim, ‘If I fix it, then I can’t touch it.’ The way Osama twirls it reminds me of those birds that groom elephants. His two fingers are like a beak; pulling up at the hair and then letting it coil back down. Since the house was sold Uncle Osama has been twirling his hair in his fingers more and more. Uncle Osama’s kids Zeinab, Zena and Zahra are down here too, in little white dresses like my sisters.
At four o’clock the cameraman arrives at our house. He’s here to film the pre-wedding scenes. He’s just come from Zubaida’s house, where he’d filmed the same activities taking place there. I imagine Zubaida’s house looking like our house right now, with diamantes and shoulder pads and musky perfumes all over the place. The women will all have hairstyles like Medusa, with a hundred bobby pins in each of their heads to make their hair stand upright in a hundred different directions. The men will all have one hairstyle, straight back, and then they let the gel do its thing: if the hair is naturally straight, it will smooth over like Uncle Ibrahim’s, if it’s naturally curly, it will curl just like my dad’s.
The cameraman asks my mum and dad to stand next to Tayta just under the entrance to the kitchen. He says he likes the arch. He has a heavy Arabic accent and uses clichés. ‘Oh yes, veery niiice,’ he says as he films. I imagine a cameraman to be fussy and energetic in order to get the best shots possible, but this guy is just like Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars. He’s a brown blob with only two camera poses: up to film, down to rest. Instead of going around collecting shots of the family, all I’ve seen him do so far today is make the family come to him. My parents step in under the arch beside Tayta with their backs as straight as possible and their lips stretched out wide. The cameraman goes into pose one, up to film, and holds the camera there for a moment. Then he goes into pose two, down to rest, and says, ‘Ookaay, who next?’ Uncle Ibrahim and Aunty Nada and Uncle Osama slip into the frame beside Tayta. ‘Ooohh, veery sexy family,’ the cameraman says, and goes back into pose one. My aunt and uncles put on these big grins and it’s especially disgusting on Nada. She’s the tallest in the shot, wearing big clunky high heels. Her hair is up like Marge Simpson. She has thick red lipstick that looks like it’s been painted on in blood. It draws immediate attention to her lumpy lower lip and crooked yellow teeth. Her upper lip is thin and dips in the centre like a butt crack. Nada tries to make her top lip look thicker by adding extra lipstick above her mouth but all it does is make her look like a hooker. That’s what Uncle Ibrahim said once – ‘Especially when she smiles.’ It’s the kind of smile that makes her nose bend. Uncle Osama looks like a fool standing next to Nada. He’s a whole head shorter than her. He stands there looking into the lens of the camera like it is an endless well and he twirls his hair in his fingers while he waits for the filming to be over. He is somewhere else right now. I start to think about all the times I’ve seen him – the second youngest of my dad’s brothers – and it dawns upon me that he’s always somewhere else. I wonder where he goes when he’s outside in the yard doing circles and saying things to himself. My dad sometimes watches him from the kitchen, and then he looks down at me, and with a sigh and a wince, he points his finger up toward the second level of the house where we know Nada is lurking, and he whispers, ‘Haidy janintou,’ which means, ‘That woman is the one who drove him mad.’
‘Bani,’ my mum says to me, ‘yulla get in the video with your brother and sisters.’
The cameraman turns to my mum and shakes his head. ‘No, Zubaida does not want any kids in da video.’
Yocheved reacts instantly. Just as the cameraman holds his gaze at Mum she runs over to Tayta and stands next to her. ‘Bilal,’ she shouts, ‘come, come.’ My brother and I run over and we stand in front of Tayta. I feel Tayta place her hand gently down on my shoulder and she says to the cameraman, ‘So-wer, so-wer,’ – ‘Film, film.’ The cameraman bites his lip and sticks his eye into the lens of the camera for a few seconds. He won’t cross my grandmother today, not even for the bride.
Aunty Yasmine and Aunty Amina walk in. They are my dad’s older sisters. Both are in red nylon dresses with little black and white beads that dangle from the collars and sleeves. The dresses stretch down to where my aunts’ high heels touch the ground and the sleeves fall to their elbows. They are tight around the top, where my aunts’ large breasts are held in place, and they begin to loosen at the bum, where the fabric can cling to their hips because my aunts’ waists are like clothes hangers. I whisper to Yocheved that they are wearing the same dress. ‘No,’ she says, ‘Mum told me one is wearing burgundy and one is wearing maroon. Can’t you tell?’ I stare back at the dresses, and no, I can’t tell. ‘They’re wearing the same dress,’ I whisper to Yocheved again. My aunts are soaked in make-up. They wear thick red lipstick, cream that makes their skin white, and black mascara. The make-up looks like it has been punched on their faces. Aunty Yasmine is the one who lives in Lakemba, where we’re moving to, and Aunty Amina lives in Liverpool in a housing commission. They are followed into the house by Amina’s son Hamzeh and Yasmine’s daughter Mouna. I feel a surge of energy rush through me as soon as they appear, like all of a sudden I want to run across the road to Alexandria Park and start swinging off the trees. Our cousins have this kind of effect on us. They meet you somewhere between sibling and friend, which makes it okay to get close without ending up a loser, or a traitor. Most of the kids at school, at Alexandria Public School, have three or four cousins, and this is where I am at my most powerful – in comparison I have hundreds of cousins, like an army created by nature. Hamzeh and Mouna are an embodiment of just how complex this army is. They are the same age and could easily stand for what it means to be a boy and a girl in The Tribe, but instead their roles are reversed. Mouna is a total tomboy, which is probably because she has older twin brothers named Zack and Zane and no sisters. She’s plump but everyone says she’s beautiful because she has bright blue eyes. Her voice is so deep that sometimes when she calls the house on the telephone I think it’s one of her older brothers. I’ll say, ‘Hey Zack…or is it Zane?’ thinking it must be one or the other because they’re twins, and then she’ll say, ‘It’s Mouna, dumbshit. Is Tayta there, my mum wants to talk to her.’ What I find most striking about Mouna are her thighs. They’re like tree trunks that have been stripped back of all their bark. She comes over on school holidays in short shorts and I try to sneak a peek at them whenever she’s not looking. I’m particularly obsessed with her kneecaps, which could very well be made of granite. One time she caught me looking and indicated with her index finger for me to come over. I walked up, utterly curious as to what she wanted, and stood in front of her the way I imagine David stood in front of Goliath. Then she kneed me in the balls. It felt like air had been sucked from my loins and I went down. It was the first and only time a girl had made me cry.
Hamzeh, on the other hand, is a total girl. He’s older than my brother and me by almost three years but we’re both tougher than him. He’s skinny and tall and has an arch in his back, which especially sticks out when he’s sitting down. His lips are bright pink and there’s a freckle just above them to the right, which our cousins Eve and Lulu say they wish they had because it’s a beauty spot. The freckle stands out particularly well in the sun when Hamzeh’s cheeks are flushed like the pink on a mango. Hamzeh goes to Villawood Public School, which has a really bad reputation, so we expect him to be tough but he’s not. His fingernails are too long for him to make a fist without stabbing into his own palm. The sad thing is he’s not smart either. He’s told me many times that when he turns fifteen he’s dropping out and going for a job at Kentucky. He says, ‘If you become like store manager you can make like thirty thousand a year.’ Eve tells him that a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken would be a big mistake. ‘You should be a model,’ she says.
Hamzeh scoops into the living room huffing and puffing. He’s dressed in a grey suit and baby-blue shirt with one button undone, which exposes his sharp neck bones. ‘Your dad’s having a fight,’ he says.
‘What? Where?’ Bilal shouts.
The Tribe is available in all bookstores worth their salt or from Giramondo.
Alfonso de Bioys-Cartan’s most recent installation, ¡KILL MENDOZA!, situated on the top floor of MALBA, Buenos Aires’ Museum of Latin American Art, is anomalous even for Bioys-Cartan himself. An Argentine by birth, Bioys-Cartan often produces large-scale installation works, most commonly in the form of indoor permaculture farms, which one could only describe as the farms of the future: his peculiar innovations include strange, self-replenishing soils fished from the top layers of the Amazon, robotic clipper ants preparing them for cultivation utilising soil nutrients to produce electrical charge, nutrients sourced and subsequently distilled from the cold waters of the Humboldt current shooting up the coast of Chile.
¡KILL MENDOZA! is anomalous because here Bioys-Cartan has removed the real, very concrete structures of fields and furrows and replaced all organic matter – which has hitherto, frankly, obsessed him ad nauseam – with the moving image. Or rather, three moving images projected onto three walls of a relatively small room.
This is curious: not only does each projected image seem to be a film in its own right – The Antarctic Convergence, When the Desert Swallowed Us Whole and Death Mountain – but each film was released previously, if only for a few days, at various small art-house cinemas scattered around the Americas, from Calgary to Calafate, in the year leading up to ¡KILL MENDOZA!’s opening. Moreover, three different directors were credited with the films, none of whom are Bioys-Cartan. Perhaps this is irrelevant. Perhaps not. What is relevant and also unlikely is that, before making my way to the top floor of MALBA for this very installation, I had already seen all three of these highly obscure movies.
A maximum of ten people are admitted at a time. We are ushered in through a thick velvet curtain, which is then drawn behind us. The faint whir of projectors can be heard. The credit sequences of all three movies begin.
I. THE ANTARCTIC CONVERGENCE
As the light begins to flicker, faintly, on the first wall, what looks like an ancient map of an island region slowly comes into focus, then, superimposed on it, a mountain landscape, a peak, another map, all now fading in and out of one another. The title sequence occurs concurrently with a montage of dark-skinned, smallish men engaged in the minutiae of fishing practices while similar maps are either subtly superimposed on the characters’ faces or actually wrapped around the actors’ heads. As we become privy to their fishing techniques, we are also presented with visions of blueprints, their villages embedded in larger maps, and it becomes apparent that their islands are situated in the Pacific. As the action settles, fishing done, families fed, all now laying down their heads to rest, we fade to an image of the region as a whole, and slowly at first, but gaining momentum rapidly, the Pacific Ocean begins to rise. By morning, their islands are not merely flooded but below sea level.
At the same time, images of Antarctica begin to filter onto the screen, ice and snow-caps melting alike, water levels rising to create islands where previously there was only land. As the Pacific Islands are disappearing, Antarctic Islands are forming and at one point, which we shall soon see is critical to Bioys-Cartan’s narrative, the maps of both regions actually coincide, the geography of these Pacific Islands is precisely the same as that of our newly forming Antarctic archipelago.
At this point, there is a transference suggested, almost instantaneous, in which the fishermen and their families are translocated to the Antarctic Peninsula, so as to not wake up with lungs softened by water, dead and floating, but to a new day, in which their land is strikingly different from the one in which they rested their heads, and yet suggestive of ineluctable verisimilitudes, a palimpsest, a subconscious knowledge of the imprecise moment at which this new, foreign, dangerous place was where they were previously, home.
In an interspersion of title cards and images, Bioys-Cartan informs us that we are in the not-so-distant future or possibly the very present, the past of which diverges slightly from our own, a time in which sea levels have obscured and then subsumed Tuvalu, Wayaguyi and various other Pacific Islands while melting polar caps have created others in the Antarctic, with global temperatures rising unfathomably. And the Islanders have necessarily been relocated to islands that bear striking similarities to their previous homes, in terms of the lay of the land, soil, arability and abundance of marine life. A world in which Pacific Islanders inhabit the melting, no longer impenetrable and unforgiving, Antarctic Peninsula.
This film, in essence, is about beginning again, new life and the eternal problems of readjustment. It focuses on three families from different islands, on changes they need to make and on their relationships, shifts between their various tribes in this New World. We learn a great deal about their transforming fishing practices, and there is a supreme focus on, if not fetishisation of, their hands and withered, cold faces. The new landscape starts visibly affecting their education systems; the fact that two communities that previously only met on water are now meeting on foreign land has ramifications on the confluence of their languages and customs. Powerful tribesmen find their societal commands waning due to factors out of their control. The terrain is foreign, and in summer they cannot sleep because here the sun does not set.
The lands are still melting. As frosts thaw and glacial structures slip irretrievably into the water, certain informations are revealed, knowledges released: ancient constructions of varying forms, brickwork, animal remains, frozen for who knows how long – new myths develop rapidly in these cultures to account for these occurrences and are swiftly subsumed, enveloped into pre-existing belief systems. But then something occurs that simply cannot coexist with any previous belief.
A mammoth female form is revealed as another glacier slips, breaks and slides down under, not mammoth in size, although Bioys-Cartan’s brilliant command of camera suggests this – she is quite regular in size for these people – but purely and simply immense: as she is revealed, she rises slowly out of the glacier and lands softly on the ground. People around her and within a radius of what seems to be kilometres are weeping, laughing uncontrollably, throwing up, seizure and revelation on the ground, and as she settles their fits subside. They flock to her, hundreds of translocated Islanders converging, congregating around her, waiting, alert. She doesn’t move.
II. WHEN THE DESERT SWALLOWED US WHOLE
We appear to be in the Sonora Desert, our protagonists a group of dishevelled, hungry and wasting-away Mexicans attempting a border crossing, continually making their way through the same terrain. In fact, it looks as though each scene is shot in the same location.
The action is primarily threefold. There are scenes: (1) of them discussing their plight, expounding arguments, philosophical and otherwise, as to the necessity of their illegal acts, moral ramifications, political overtones and projecting what one would assume is their collective desired future, a life North of the Border; (2) of their crossing the inhospitable, harsh terrain during the long, searing days and the sicknesses, physical and otherwise, hallucinatory or not, that result; and (3) of their nights, in which they huddle, shivering, attempting to realise some semblance of sleep, while the desert produces creatures that are both vague and inconsistent and yet which, were I forced to describe them, would seem to be best related using ridiculous terms such as sand-monsters and were-pumas.
Occasionally, our heroes wake up to find that one of their number has been torn to shreds right in the midst of them, sometimes devoured from the inside out and/or dead from shock. They also begin to fall during the day. They are moving as quickly as they can. Their conversations continue and a strange phenomenon becomes apparent, albeit subtly at first: instead of discussing wistfully the prospects and promises of their collective bright future in the United States, they are actually describing life across the border as if it were a thing of the past, already lost, lingering just behind them.
At one point, it is suggested that they are already completely naturalised Mexican-Americans, or, even more absurdly, North Americans made up to look as they do, in either case citizens of the United States, and are engaging in Extreme Tourism, on a guided tour that takes the shape of an illegal border crossing. Whether this is just for kicks or to develop a sincere, strange form of empathy for their brothers South of the Border is unclear, but as soon as this idea appears, it is just as quickly dismissed.
Multiple alternative hypotheses are presented and, against all odds, it seems as though the following is what is actually occurring: our pilgrims, in the desert, have encountered what one can only refer to as an elastic time-band, in which they are propelled back and forth between two points, neither of which is particularly well-defined. When they begin to move back in time, what was their future in the US becomes their past. In this loop, they are slowly degrading and dying. There is no respite, and the sand-monsters are able to appear now in their true form, as severe, unyielding aspects and agents of Time herself – time-monsters, for lack of a better term. In the end, via a strained detective narrative, the travellers discover these facts and there is a feeling that as soon as all of this is unravelled they might have a chance of escaping the Time-Desert. There is a storm, the first rains we have seen. Out of the ground, she rises, Time herself, fully formed by sand now turning to flesh. She stands there. Our heroes tremble and weep as she smiles. She doesn’t move.
III. DEATH MOUNTAIN
Set in an open-cut mine in Montana, this seems to be a story not of exploitation of the land but of communion with it. The main player is a white miner, nameless. We shall call him X for ease of reference. X works at least 16 hours a day and sleeps the rest in the mine. Long sequences show the miners working, and intricate details of both mechanics and machinery are explored simultaneously. We see X’s body degrade, malnutrition setting in slowly. He begins to have visions.
Out of the darkness all this way under the surface of the Earth, mineral beings appear, seeping out of the damp walls, ceilings and floors, with brains of ore and hearts of stone. They violate him. He weeps and smiles. He tries to tell his friends, his colleagues, whoever these people are he works with. Nobody believes him. They are not privy to these mineral trysts. We initially see them only from X’s point of view. As the narrative unfolds, however, we begin to see these ore-creatures standing next to him, holding him, then we see them when X has his eyes closed, then creeping up on him from behind, then forming from wall-matter when X is not to be seen at all. It seems as though, in our minds at least, they are beginning to exist independently of him.
In a stunningly beautiful, emotive and entirely pornographic scene between X and a variety of these mineral beings, they merge into what looks like a strengthened pool of liquid mercury, which forces its way into his mouth and then bursts out of his stomach, somehow leaving him intact, in the form of a striking American Indian woman who claims to be his Earth Bride. Under cloak of night, she helps him work the land. His productivity soars, as does his income, and his health returns. They make love amidst the earth. Once again, she initially exists solely for him – X is the only one who can see her, the only one whom she can touch – but then along creeps the distinct impression that her existence is independent of his. It is at this point that she begins to kill.
It is more complex than this. For a start, there are simultaneous conflicting scenes: we see X and his colleague, Y, alone together, and X stabs Y to death after a heated, riveting argument concerning the ethics of mining; occasionally alternating with this and sometimes superimposed on it is a scene in which X’s Earth Bride makes love to Y and then proceeds to devour him alive, screeching, ‘You are my Death Mountain.’ There is a constant shift between: (1) X killing his colleagues, (2) X’s Earth Bride killing the selfsame colleagues and (3) X and his Earth Bride committing these horribly violent acts together.
In the end, there is nobody left to kill. She turns to him. He shivers and falls to the ground. She smiles a smile that says, ‘Your time hasn’t come yet’. She raises her arms slowly, palms facing up, and with this movement all those they have killed together rise from the ground, not just covered in earth but actually made from it. They follow her outside, shielding themselves from the torturous sunlight. We see them all in the open cut of the mine, trembling and crying. A close-up of X’s Earth Bride’s face. She doesn’t move. And then she does.
Let me remind you that I have seen these movies before individually. And the above descriptions not merely synopsise them relatively accurately but also end at the respective end-points of each movie’s trajectory. In this installation, ¡KILL MENDOZA!, they continue, and what happens next is singular. Recall the following:
Camera 1 (C1) is showing a close-up of the Antarctic Islanders’ fossilised and skeletal Saviour.
Camera 2 (C2) demonstrates the profile of the Woman personifying Time, the Chaser, the Temptress, that which is both abstractly and very concretely picking off our desert Time-Travellers.
Through the lens of Camera 3 (C3), we see a close-up of X’s Earth Bride’s face – her features occupy the entire frame.
This, then, is what follows: C1, C2 and C3 all retreat slowly from their respective subjects. Then they begin to appear in each other’s fields of vision. One of the three defining examples is: as C3 slowly zooms out from X’s Bride’s earthy features, on the left of the frame C2 appears, and in the top right way up back, C1. All three are now focused on the object which by now we realise is concurrently the Saviour, the Woman of Time, and the Earth Bride.
The landscapes shimmer and disappear, fading to black, white and black respectively. She remains, constant, in her varying aspects. The contexts return – we are now in Montana, the Sonora Desert and on the Antarctic Peninsula simultaneously. The three cameras roam over the single landscape, desert, lush green mountains and fields of snow, we move through geysers, collectives of volcanic ash and lava coagulated into unidentifiable shapes, flying over flamingo lakes and a crusted lake of salt as white as snow.
It becomes clear that we are actually in Bolivia on the Altiplano, the only place I know of in the world boasting lush green fields and mountains, snowy peaks resembling those of the Antarctic, and desert expanses. Not merely this, the Creature, the Woman, tells us precisely where we are: en route from the Uyuni salt flats to the town bearing the same name. As she begins her monologue, for a brief instant
flashes across all three screens along with the fourth wall. She is speaking to the translocated Pacific Islanders, the Mexican Time-Travellers and the resurrected Miners from an elevated plateau. She is also directing certain phrases and glances towards us. There seems to be a thin mist surrounding her, perhaps seeping out from under her skin, which slowly permeates the crowds and then seeps through the walls to enter the room of the installation. These wisps engulf us all slowly as she delivers her words softly, measured, they are distended and we can still see, albeit more vaguely, the walls: the first three have images of their protagonists staring, listening attentively to her Sermon; the fourth wall has an image of us doing the same in this very room. The mist is apparent everywhere and smells faintly of earth. Her voice is soft:
My name is Tiempea. I was born in 1557 in Potosi, Peru, not far from where we are now. My family was very poor, the city at this point becoming very rich. Soon, it would become the richest city of the New World, of all the Americas, the streets were to be paved with silver soon enough. Of course they never found El Dorado. How could they when it was called Potosi all along, in the midst of which Cerro Rico, the Mountain that Eats People, filled with silver and ready to take eight million lives?
I am not lying to you and I will not. In the following two centuries, eight million were to die extracting silver from this deathscape, including myself. My father was a miner, as was my husband, and they both died in equally horrifying fashions. To support my family, I entered the mine in the guise of a man and worked for years to come. I did anything and everything, from operating machinery to treading down silver mixed with mercury with my bare feet. This killed me slowly, as did the vapours when the mercury was driven off.
When I finally died, I experienced the sensation of watching myself perish from above. Instead of fleeing to the next world, I was stuck in a peculiar type of limbo. For years, I wandered the Altiplano and the Andes. Sometimes, though rarely, I made it to the coast. I have watched the land and the people slaughtered for centuries in the name of things that don’t make sense. My homeland, Peru, this part of my homeland they now call Bolivia, no matter . . .
Slowly, I began to realise my calling, why I had not been able to leave this world after dying.
As the mists dissipate, streaking the surfaces of the room slowly, I look around and there are between 50 and 100 people in the room: the original ten spectators, along with a variety of the Pacific Islanders, Mexicans and Miners. The walls shudder violently, warping, expanding, contracting, some of us throwing up, others crying and laughing simultaneously, others still, patient, attentive. Parts of the floor rise, tilting, the room reconfiguring itself.
It may be a highly complex series of projections which are disorienting me and making me feel that this is really happening and yet as the surfaces distend, change shape, seats rise up and out of the floor, windows appear on the walls, out of which one can only catch glimpses of darkness. When finally an aspect of stillness arrives, we are clearly situated in a bus, seated, while she, Tiempea, sits brazen at the head of our night-ship, continuing her tale.
She tells us that she remained on Earth as what we would call a ghost in order to one day return to a time before she was born and kill a man, the man responsible for her death, for the death of her brother, for that of her father and for those of at least eight million others, the man responsible for the mine at Cerro Rico, the catalyst for so many of the atrocities that have occurred in South America since, in what is now nearly half a millennium.
I start to throw up. I can’t quite grasp all of her words and yet I receive the distinct impression that the presence of these four varying groups of people on this bus, hurtling across the Altiplano in the gravest midnight darkness, the Islanders, the Mexicans, the Miners and us, the viewers, the fact that we are here with her now, is the precise situation she has been waiting for, has waited centuries to orchestrate and she has finally found us all, the translocated, the desert homeless, those sacrificed by themselves and others to the Earth, the Artists, the Thinkers, the Watchers, the Revellers, the Dancers, and here we are, on a long, slender bus, travelling through space and back through time, to a moment when we can all take revenge, initially hers but clearly now a result of a vengeance we all share, to kill a man now responsible not for anything in particular, but responsible in the abstract: to kill Mendoza.
Day is breaking. Tiempea descends from the bus. We all shuffle out after her in single file. When it is my turn to alight, I look up ahead of me and see only her and none of those who have preceded. She offers me her hand and I take it. As I descend, there is no longer any ground, any soil or hardened tar for my foot to settle on, in fact, there is no more foot as my hand melds into hers and my body seems to dissolve – not dissolve, reconfigure, yes, reconfigure and enter hers or, more precisely, become hers – and I am looking out her eyes and offering my hand, her hand to the next person descending to join us and in this body, our body, I know that everyone else has settled, everyone who has preceded me. And now we are all here, we have all moved from the bus, which is now a wagon, to Tiempea, inside her ancient frame. The serenity of this moment, nearly a hundred people at peace together in one woman’s body circa 1545 having travelled nearly half a millennium back in time, is all there is; there is no sense of strangeness or surprise.
This serenity seems to then coexist with the varying amounts of rage and hostility that necessarily come into play due to the nature of the task at hand. In the back of the wagon, we uncover a mass of dynamite and a variety of small explosives from the future. We make many trips to Cerro Rico, strategically placing the explosives on the surface and deep in the centre. We work together intuitively and peacefully. The detonator is in our right hand as we wander the streets of Potosi, bawling, remembering our collective childhood, searching these vivid streets for Mendoza’s villa.
We know when we have arrived and we open the door with a key that we retrieve from our pocket. Our body shudders and pulses, covered in sheets of electricity, contracting, expanding, the net effect of which is an absolute shrinking, the precise sensation of bodily organs rejuvenating, smoothing of skin. Our clothes are first loose-fitting and then large. A man stands before us.
Is that you, Señor Mendoza?
I am Señor Mendoza, yes.
. . .
What can I do for you, young lady?
It’s more what I can do for myself that I’m interested in.
I’m not sure I understand . . .
Now, if you were the guard who enters during the ensuing struggle, you would see a small girl atop your employer, straddling him, stabbing him in the face and chest dozens of times with the strength of what would seem to be a hundred people, a girl covered in the fabric of a fully-grown woman’s dress, and if you were that guard, you might approach her to drag her off Mendoza, although by this point it wouldn’t mean a god damn thing because you would already be jobless and she, the girl, would be pressing a button on a small metal box and you would hear a crashing and a roaring and your hands would go to your ears although you’re already deaf and running to the window to see the mountain exploding and crumbling down, the earth shaking, and when you turn around to kill the little girl for what she’s done, you see her getting smaller and younger and then the next second even smaller and you rub your eyes and she’s curling up and you blink and she’s nearly a foetus and she’s blue and she’s covered in blood and she’s still shrinking and then she’s so small you can’t even see her and then she’s so small she’s not even there. You might sprint over to Mendoza’s body to check for vital signs, finding none. You might search the room and then the house and then the town for the crazy little bitch responsible for this and find nothing, not a trace. Perhaps, with a story like this, you yourself will be held responsible for this inhuman slaughter of one of the most important men in modern-day Peru.
And yet all of this is mere speculation. What I know is the following: I come to. We all come to, all ten of us, on the floor of the room containing Bioys-Cartan’s installation on the top floor of MALBA. The velvet curtain has been drawn and we exit, eyes downcast, leaving the tears and the vomit, the scratches on the walls, for others to clean up. Later, I discover that the installation has been quickly shut down due to technical difficulties, and for various reasons I am not able to ascertain the nature of others’ experiences in that room. Nor am I able to decipher for myself the intention of the Artist.
The sun spread on the horizon, bleeding colour like a broken yolk. In the growing light, I watched as the landscape condensed and emerged. The leaves of the eucalypts became sharply defined. The ochre earth glowed.
The carriage creaked, continuing its gentle sway from side to side as we trundled further inland. I had become accustomed to the extravagance of space in Broome, but this was a different sort of vastness: acres of sun-bleached pasture and crops stretched away as far as the eye could see. Here and there, fat-bellied cows and horses pulled at the yellow grass. Sweat gathered on my back and the undersides of my thighs, making the vinyl seat cling. I reached up to unlatch the window. Fresh air kissed my face.
We had gathered at Adelaide central that morning, so early that stars were visible in the sky. On the deserted platform, we formed a strange group of fifty men, united only by our nationality. I already knew some of the group—they had been my companions on the journey from Perth. I met the others that morning. Like us, they had been transferred from camps in other states. Guards surrounded us, rifles strapped to their shoulders, eyes shifting to all corners of the terminal. After half an hour, a steam train chugged into view. Japanese faces peered at us through the windows of the carriages. There must have been at least two hundred men inside the train. We were corralled into an empty carriage. Before long we set off, leaving the silhouettes of city buildings behind. As the light grew stronger, red-tiled houses emerged from the gloom. They looked like something out of a storybook, with their neat gardens and white fences.
I settled back in my seat. My body ached from days of constant travel. The points where my buttocks and back touched the seat were numb. The last time I had showered was at the camp in Harvey, four days earlier. I hadn’t realised the journey to Adelaide would take so long.
An old man sat in the seat opposite me. So far, we hadn’t exchanged a word. I stole a glance at him as he stared out the window. Wrinkles creased the skin around his eyes like wet paper. One of the soldiers standing at the end of our carriage began whistling a cheerful tune. Someone behind me coughed. Others began to murmur. I caught fragments of their conversation. They spoke with an accent I couldn’t place. ‘. . . soldiers here are much kinder. Did you see one of them offered me a cigarette?’
‘Maybe our next camp will be as nice and clean as this train.’ Farms dotted the countryside. I glimpsed the contours of a wide river. Here and there I saw dead but still-standing trees, their ghostly limbs stretching skywards, as if begging for forgiveness.
About two hours into the journey, we approached the outskirts of a town. Spacious, two-storey houses fronted onto wide, dusty streets. The river glittered in the distance. Small watercraft bobbed along its banks. We pulled into a train station, stopping with a jolt at the platform. Murray Bridge the sign read. A woman and girl were sitting on a bench in front of our carriage. The girl was about three—my niece’s age when I’d last seen her—fair and chubby, with brown curls pulled into bunches on either side of her head. Seeing us, her eyes flashed. She tugged her mother’s arm and pointed at us. The woman stared straight ahead. We were at the station less than a minute when the whistle blew. As the train lurched forward, the woman grabbed her daughter’s hand and dragged her towards our carriage. She came so close I could see the whites of her eyes. She spat. A glob landed on the window in front of my face.
‘Bloody Japs!’ she said, shaking her fist.
The train groaned as it moved away. The woman became smaller till she was no more than a pale slip, but I could still see her face. Eyes narrowed, mouth tight—her features twisted with hate.
The train reached Barmera at six o’clock that evening. Despite the late hour, the sun beat down, casting everything in a copper light. Dust floated in the air. Aside from the soldiers waiting to escort us to camp, there wasn’t a soul around. A wide dirt road stretched ahead of us, framed by swathes of green farmland on either side. In the distance, the slate-grey roof and white walls of a cottage stood out among the greenery; the cottage’s open windows were the only sign of habitation.
Four soldiers stood on the platform, plus two on horseback who waited on the track. They wore the same uniform as those who’d guarded us on the train, but everything about them was different: the way they rested the butts of their rifles on the ground, their craggy faces and their easy grins. ‘Next stop, Loveday!’ one of them yelled, motioning for us to follow the path.
On the train I’d pitied the other men with their scant belongings, but on the three-mile walk to camp with my four bags, I envied them. As we followed the track, I caught snatches of their conversation.
‘How hot will it be in the middle of the day?’ one wondered. ‘It can’t be worse than the ship. At least we have fresh air here,’ said another.
The soldiers chatted to each other, and every so often they thrust their hands into the grapevines growing on either side of the path and pulled out bunches of ripe fruit.
Burdened with my luggage, I fell to the back, where the older members of our group were walking. A guard on horse- back brought up the rear. I was wondering whether I could abandon one of my suitcases, when I heard a cry and a scuffle behind me. One of the men from New Caledonia was on his hands and knees, his head almost touching the ground. I dropped my bags and ran to him. His complexion was pale and his pupils were dilated, so I coaxed him to lie down. The guard on horseback called for the others to halt, and a crowd gathered around the man.
‘Christ, he looks like death,’ said the guard.
I pressed my hand to his forehead. He was burning. ‘What’s your name?’ I asked the man. He looked at me but said nothing. I asked him again.
‘He doesn’t speak Japanese, only French,’ said someone in the crowd. A slight man with hollow cheeks stepped forward. ‘But I think his name is Yonetsu. He was on the ship with me.’
‘What’s the matter with him?’
The man shrugged. ‘Probably ill from the ship. They gave us very little to eat—only one meal a day. Even I got sick. We weren’t allowed to go on deck. Many died, especially the older ones like him.’
‘He’s weak,’ I told the guard. ‘I don’t think he can walk. Is there something to carry him on—a stretcher?’
‘Nah, we’ve got one at headquarters, but that’ll take too long. He doesn’t look like he’ll last another hour. . . Hey, Jack!’ The guard at the front of the group turned his horse around.
‘I have to take this one to hospital. Can’t have one cark it already. Can you give us a hand?’
One of the guards and I eased Yonetsu from the ground, but we needed the help of several more men to get him into the saddle. He was so feeble he could barely sit up, so we broke off vines to wrap around his body and secure him to the guard.
By the time they departed, the sky had turned from blue to violet. We resumed our walk and a white glow appeared on the horizon ahead.
‘Is that the camp? Loveday?’ I asked the guard nearest to me. ‘Yep, that’s it,’ he said. ‘It’s always lit up like that at night.
Bright as daylight.’
I struggled along at the back of the group, stopping to adjust my load from time to time. By the time we reached camp, almost an hour later, my hands were blistered and weeping. We lined up outside a concrete building and one by one were called by name to enter. Three men sat behind desks scattered with paper. I approached one of the officers. He looked me up and down, stopping at the sight of my bags.
‘Four bags? Christ, did you bring your entire house?’ ‘My medical equipment—I thought. . .’
He lifted his eyebrows. ‘Occupation?’ ‘Medical doctor.’
‘A doctor? Here or overseas?’
‘Both. In Japan I was a doctor, but more recently I was working at a hospital in Broome. Also at the camp in Harvey— they asked me to help. There were not enough doctors.’
‘Is that why you got here later than the others from Broome?’ I nodded. ‘The military doctor at Harvey, Dr Mackinnon, asked me to stay behind. The camp commander approved the extension.’
The officer turned his attention to the form. Still writing, he addressed me again.
‘I see you’re thirty-three. How long have you been here? Your English is good.’
‘I came to Australia in 1938. It has been almost four years.’ The man beside me struggled to make himself understood. Linen factory, he said over and over in Japanese, referring to his occupation. ‘Marital status?’
I was caught off-guard. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. The officer looked up.
‘Well, are you married or not? Got a wife?’ ‘I—ah . . . Yes, I am married.’
‘Where is she? Here?’
‘No. She’s in Japan. In Tokyo. She’s never been to Australia.’ He looked as if he was about to ask something further, but he nodded briskly and returned to his notes. After a while, he paused, tapping one end of his pen on the desk.
‘I’m putting you in Camp 14C, where most of the other men from Broome are. But you can’t take any of this stuff with you.’ He motioned to my open suitcase. ‘Scalpels, scissors—it’s far too dangerous with some of the other internees. We’ll put them in a safety deposit box along with your valuables. Got any valuables?’
Before we were allowed to enter the camp, we were subject to a medical examination. Although I knew what to expect— I’d carried out the same procedure on hundreds of new internees at Harvey—I wasn’t prepared for the indignity of being probed while naked. The doctor was a lanky man with an abrupt manner—perhaps because he was eager to finish the late-night inspections as quickly as possible. His long, thin fingers prodded me with surprising force while he dictated the condition of my lungs, heart , hair, teeth and genitals to his assistant in a voice louder than what seemed necessary. The doctor met my gaze only once, when I mentioned that I was a physician, too. By the time we’d all been examined, it was almost midnight.
We stood outside the camp entrance, bathed in the glare of the f loodlights. Everything appeared too bright and too crisp. Even the whispers of my companions were amplified in the stillness of the night.
‘They’re watching us now, aren’t they? From that tower?’ The nearest guard tower was twenty feet away, just behind
the ring of floodlights. I squinted at the enclosure at the top of the tower. The barrel of a mounted machine gun jutted out against the sky.
‘They’re always watching us,’ another man said. ‘When we’re eating, sleeping and shitting. They have to. And even if they aren’t watching us, they want us to think they are.’
‘Will they shoot us?’ the first man said. ‘Only if we try to escape.’
A guard strode down the incline towards us, his feet kicking up small clouds of dust. ‘Ready to enter?’ His voice boomed across the landscape. His face was red and shiny, as if he’d just emerged from a hot shower. He unlocked the gate and stepped back to let us into the long rectangular wire enclosure.
‘Say goodbye to freedom,’ he said under his breath.
We squeezed into the space that was just larger than an army truck, and the guard locked the door behind us. We jostled and bumped each other. A wooden beam cut into the small of my back. I wondered how long we’d be kept like this, but the guard called, ‘All in!’ and after a few moments a second guard opened the door on the other side. We spilled onto a wide dirt road that seemed to go on forever.
‘Welcome to Loveday Camp 14,’ the guard said as he shut and locked the door. ‘That’s the birdcage gate. It’s how we get you in and out. There’s another one like it on the other side. You’ll get used to them soon enough. Eighteen of you are in 14B and the rest are in 14C. All in 14B raise your hand.’ He counted the hands. ‘Right, you lot are in here.’ He walked over to a door built into the wire fence and unlocked it. ‘Your compound leader’s waiting for you. The rest of you come with me.’
We farewelled the men leaving us. They were mostly Formosans and New Caledonians. Although I’d only been with them a day, I felt a strong kinship with them, having come this far. The old man who’d sat opposite me on the train was among them. He smiled at me before going through the gate. I never found out his name.
We walked down the road that bisected camp.
‘This is called Broadway, because of all the bright lights,’ the guard said, indicating the road.
He began to whistle a tune. Although the melody was cheerful, hearing it in that empty space filled me with sorrow.
‘Hey, look over there,’ the man beside me whispered.
To our right, thirty feet away, a figure stood on the other side of the fence. An Occidental man in a light-coloured shirt and pants stared at us with dispassion, the way one would watch cars passing on the street. Although he probably meant no harm, his ghostly appearance perturbed me and I dared not look again.
We passed a juncture where the road intersected a narrower track about fifteen feet wide that marked the start of the two other compounds.
‘This small road that cuts across the middle is what we call the Race. And this is your camp, 14C,’ the guard said, indicating the fence on his left. ‘Though the entrance is at the other end.’
The low line of buildings beyond the fence appeared bleak in the unnatural light. The guard stopped whistling as we neared the end of the road.
‘Anyone there?’ he called.
‘Yes,’ a voice responded from some distance away. Footsteps moved towards us. The guard unlocked the door and we filed into the compound. Three men stood on the other side.
‘Welcome to Camp 14C,’ said the tallest of the men. The skin at his jaw was pulled tight. His round, wire-rimmed glasses ref lected the glare of the f loodlights. ‘My name is Mori. I’m the mayor of this compound. My colleagues and I are responsible for maintaining order and ensuring all internees are treated fairly. We hope to make life at camp as comfortable as possible for you.’ He used the formal language of a native Tokyoite—words I hadn’t heard for years. ‘This is my deputy, Mr Yamada.’ He gestured to the man next to him, who had a broad, suntanned face and close-cropped grey hair. Mr Yamada nodded and smiled. ‘And the secretary, Mr Hoshi.’ The third man bowed deeply, his paunch pressing against the waistband of his trousers. Sweat shone on his balding pate. ‘We’re here to ensure your time at camp is as comfortable as possible. If there’s anything you need, please come to us. Usually we’d take you on a tour immediately after your arrival, but as it’s very late we’ll show you your tent and the latrines and ablutions block tonight, and the rest of camp tomorrow. Your group is being spread across four tents. Could the men from Menaro come with me? The men from Batavia follow Mr Hoshi. You’re a large group, so you’ll be in two tents. And the one late arrival from Harvey camp—from Broome, yes?’ I nodded. ‘Please follow Mr Yamada.’
Mr Yamada stepped forward and greeted me.
‘You’re Ibaraki-sensei, from Broome? Harada told me all about you. Here, let me take one of your bags. The tent’s this way.’
Before I had a chance to protest he took one of the suitcases out of my hand.
‘Harada? Harada Yasutaro’s here?’ I asked, relieved to know I had friends among the camp population. Harada was the vice-president of Broome’s Japanese Association. When we’d said goodbye at Harvey Camp, I wasn’t sure whether we’d see each other again.
‘Yes, but he’s in a different row of tents. I’ll show you tomorrow. We were going to put you with him and some of the divers from Broome, but when we found out you were a doctor . . .’ Yamada smiled. ‘We thought you might prefer to stay in my tent. You’ll like everyone in there. It’s a shame you didn’t arrive two weeks ago with all the others. We appointed the executive committee last week. We could have done with another educated man such as you.’
We walked along the lines of tents, then stopped near the middle of a row.
‘This is our tent: row eight, number twelve,’ he whispered, so as not to wake the others. ‘I’ve already made your bed. Drop your luggage and change your clothes if you’d like, then I’ll show you the latrines. I’ll wait for you at the end of the row.’ I set my suitcases down and sorted through my belongings, feeling for my nightclothes and toothbrush. I winced in pain as my blistered hands knocked against something hard. I heard the sigh of breath from inside the tent. A rustle as somebody stirred. I was touched by Yamada’s kindness, especially since I was a stranger to him. I looked up at the heavens and silently said a prayer of thanks. The stars were faint pinpricks beneath the glare of lights.
The next morning I woke early. Grey light filtered through the opening of the tent. It must have been no later than six, but the day was already full of the promise of heat. A warm breeze teased the edges of the tent. A fly circled above me in lazy arcs. My neck and back were damp against the bedsheets. The rise and fall of the breath of the men around me grew louder, filling my ears. I raised my head and sweat trickled down my neck. My six companions slept on, apparently unconcerned by the gathering heat.
In Broome, on Sundays, I would rise at five o’clock and walk for two hours along the shore of the bay, weaving between the pink-red sand and the spiky fringe of grass that skirted it. The sun would burst from the horizon in an orange haze, slowly bringing the sand, the grass and the sea into sharp definition. Those walks always cleared my head and provided me with a calmness with which to begin the week.
I crept to the doorway of the tent and looked out. In the bleak morning light, the landscape appeared completely different to the previous night. Rows and rows of khaki tents stretched away from me. Beyond them, the iron roofs of the mess halls were clustered next to the internal road I’d walked down last night. Stepping out of the tent, I turned to face the outer fence. Between the last line of tents and the perimeter fence was a f lat, dusty expanse, littered with pebbles and clumps of stubborn grass. Beyond the barbed-wire fence, dirt, grass and scrub continued in flat eternity.
I walked towards the latrines in the northwest corner of the compound, passing a small galvanised-iron shed with padlocked shutters. Yamada had pointed it out to me last night. ‘You can buy cigarettes, razors and other supplies here,’ he’d said.
I reached the concrete latrines and ablutions blocks, easily identifiable by their stench. Following the path that hugged the fence, I wandered past two mess halls and a kitchen. The air was alive with the clink of metal pots and bowls as breakfast was being prepared. The rich smell of fried butter greeted me. I looked at my watch. It was just past six. Breakfast wouldn’t be served for another hour.
I slipped back in between the rows of tents, catching sight of the men inside, still prostrate on their beds, sheets crumpled beside them. I continued until I’d reached the fence that faced the world beyond the camp. From what I’d gathered, our camp formed one section of a roughly circular larger camp that had been divided into four quadrants. As well as the Japanese in 14B and 14C, there were Italians and Germans in the other two compounds. A fenced-off divide separated each of the four camps, so although we could see each other, we had limited contact.
The barbed-wire fence stood before me, steel tips dull against the brightening sky. A stretch of cleared land surrounded the camp like a moat. At the edge of the clearing a forest of tall red gums stood like sentinels. Bark peeled from their trunks like blistered skin.
I’d received a letter from my mother the week before I’d left Harvey. In the months before my arrest she had urged me to return to Japan. But I told her I had to stay in Broome to honour my contract. In truth, the contract had already expired—I wasn’t ready to go back to Japan.
‘Dear Tomokazu,’ my mother’s letter had begun. ‘Snow has fallen steadily this week. Although the days are getting longer, the ice on the awnings grows heavier each day. Have you been well? I am in good health.’
Mother informed me she saw my sister, Megumi, and her two children almost every day. She’d visited the family graves early in the new year and said everything was in order.
‘Your younger brother, Nobuhiro,’ began the next sentence, but the rest of the paragraph had been neatly cut from the paper by the censors, forming a rectangle of empty space. The void seemed to have a force of its own, drawing the meaning of the words into it.
The letter ended with: ‘Please take good care of yourself. I will write again when I have more time. From, Mother.’
I was anxious to know what had become of my brother, who was in the navy and, when I’d last heard, had been sent to China. Although there were eight years between us, we were close. I often played with him in the fields at the back of our house. He was only ten when I moved to Tokyo to study. He’d planned to study medicine, like me, but that changed when the war began. The letter didn’t mention my wife. My mother used to see the Sasakis from time to time, but I’d heard nothing of them in the past year.
Trying to calm my mind, I walked along the fence until I reached my row of tents. I was surprised to discover a Buddhist altar in the space between the last row of tents and the outside fence. It was a simple structure, no more than shoulder-high. It was made from unpainted pine; the roof was swollen and faded from the elements. Two rough-hewn doors splayed open, revealing a miniature scroll with the words ‘Eternal Happiness’, and a vase with several withered stems.
In Japan, I would have lit a stick of incense at such a time. But here, so many miles from home, all I could do was kneel before the altar and close my eyes.
I sensed a movement to my left and saw a figure come to stillness about thirty feet away. As I stared at him, I real- ised he was half-caste. The eyes were too round and the nose too broad for a Japanese. The young man had a towel folded over his shoulder, soap in one hand—straight-backed and passive-faced, like a soldier in a parade. Our eyes met and he nodded almost imperceptibly before continuing on his way.
I stepped into the mess hall and was assaulted by a barrage of voices, clangs and scrapes. The room thrummed with the sound of several hundred men eating breakfast. I longed for the silence of the early morning, when hardly a soul had been awake.
‘Meat?’ Yamada offered me a tray piled high with thick slices of something dark brown. ‘I think it’s mutton. Always mutton. Not to my taste, but it keeps me going till lunch.’
The smell of mutton in the morning made me feel weak, but I took a sliver, not wanting to appear ungrateful. Yamada poured me a cup of tea and offered me the first helping of oatmeal, toast, butter and jam. He introduced me to the other people at our table, who were also in our tent. I had difficulty hearing the introductions over the clamour, but I gathered that aside from one elderly man from Borneo they had all come from Sumatra.
‘We all worked together at a rubber production company. I am—I was—the director. The others work in production. Watanabe is in accounting. We worked hard, but business was tough. Especially after the Dutch froze our assets—those bastards. I’ll never forgive them for what they did to us.’ As he recalled the Dutch embargo on Japanese trade, his face darkened. For a moment I was worried he would become enraged. But just as quickly, he brightened. ‘What about you, sensei? Which university did you go to? Tokyo or Kyoto?’
‘Ah, the very best.’ He turned to the man on his other side. ‘Did you hear? He went to Tokyo.’
In between mouthfuls, I glanced at nearby tables, looking for my friend Harada. Raised voices cut through the din in the hall. I paused, knife and fork raised, trying to make out a conversation behind me. I caught the long, flat vowels of a native English speaker.
‘. . . took two pieces—same as everybody else. If you’ve got a problem with it, why don’t you ask that fella over there. Seen him take more than his fair share.’
The second speaker’s voice was muffled, but the few words I heard were enough to tell me that English was not his first language.
I turned around in my seat. It took me a few moments to locate the men. The first was sitting at a table two rows behind me. He had a tanned complexion typical of many of the divers I’d known in Broome, but there was something distinctly un-Japanese about his person. He had a strong jaw and powerful, sloping shoulders that seemed to dwarf the rest of his body. I sensed he was a living portrait of someone I knew—the photographic ghost-image of a friend. He leaned forward in his chair, speaking to the man opposite him, a slight man whose face I couldn’t see.
‘You’re telling me I took two big pieces? Jesus Christ. Hey, Charlie, would you listen to this?’ He turned to the person next to him, who was similarly broad and muscular, but had fair skin and wavy hair that fell over one eye. He was one of the half-castes. I recognised another person at their table as the young man I’d seen on my morning walk.
‘He reckons I took more than my fair share because I took two big pieces. As if counting how many pieces I take isn’t enough, they’ve also got an eye on the size of the meat we take. Next they’ll be counting how many pieces of toilet paper we use.’
Charlie shook his head. ‘Not worth getting worked up about it, Johnny. Can’t win this one.’ His voice was flat.
I realised who the first speaker was: Johnny Chang. He’d been a well-known personality in Broome, a young businessman who’d run a noodle shop in Japtown then later started up a taxi business, the first of its kind in town. I had a clear mental picture of him on the corner of Short Street and Dampier Terrace, one arm draped over the open door of his parked car and the other fanning his face with a folded paper while he chatted to people on the street. He was known to everybody and moved among the Japanese, Chinese, native and even the white population with ease. His father was a Chinese immigrant who’d found a modest fortune on the goldfields and moved to Broome to start a restaurant, eventually marrying the Japanese daughter of a laundry owner.
It was strange I hadn’t recognised Johnny straight away. Perhaps it was the difference in attitude; in Broome, he’d always been easygoing, but here it was as if he were another man.
‘What right have you got to tell us what to do, anyway? Acting like you own the place, with your so-called mayor who doesn’t even follow his own bloody rules.’ Johnny’s voice filled the crowded hall. ‘Yeah, that’s right, him . . .’ Johnny jabbed a finger towards Mayor Mori, who was sitting a few tables away. ‘He gets all sorts of special treatment. Two or three helpings of food, first in line to use the showers, no cleaning duties. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.’
Mori continued to eat, delicately spearing a piece of mutton with his fork and bringing it to his mouth. His expression was difficult to read.
Yamada hissed to Watanabe across the table. ‘That half- caste—what’s his name? Chang? The troublemaker. He needs to watch himself. He’s an embarrassment to our compound. He’s upset many people already.’
I wondered whether I should mention my Broome connection to Johnny Chang. But we’d never been intimately acquainted, so I kept quiet.
Yamada turned to me. ‘Last week he forced his way into the executive meeting when we were in session. Said he’d been waiting to use the recreation tent. We told him the meeting was more important, but even then he wouldn’t leave. He has no respect for authority—no respect for our ways. None of them do.’ Yamada flicked his hand towards Johnny’s table with an expression of disgust.
I was surprised by the news of Johnny’s antisocial behav- iour. As far as I knew, Johnny had had little trouble with the authorities in Broome. He was friendly with the constables, some of whom he’d known for years.
‘You haafu fools don’t deserve the Japanese blood in you!’ said an old man at the mayor’s table, speaking in Japanese. He shook his fist at Johnny.
Johnny thumped the table and stood up. ‘You bloody racist! I know what you just said. Think I don’t know what haafu means? You fucking Emperor-worshipping pig—’
Charlie put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, trying to quieten him. People began yelling at Johnny to get out.
‘Chinese bastard!’ someone cried.
Johnny shrugged off his friend. ‘Don’t tell me what to do like the rest of these arseholes. I can handle myself. I want to get out of here anyway. I can’t get far enough away from these pigs.’
He kicked his chair and shoved the table as he walked out. Silence descended as everyone watched him. I heard the sigh of my own breath. My heartbeat filled my ears. But only a few seconds later, the cloud of noise rose again. The screech of cutlery. Shrill voices. The banging of plates.
I looked at the food in front of me. White specks of lard flecked the meat on my plate. The mutton had turned cold.
After breakfast, Yamada led me to my old friend Harada’s tent. Inside the tent, figures ducked and weaved as the inhabit- ants folded bedding, sorted through belongings and swept the ground. Although I’d rarely socialised with the divers in Broome, when the men saw me, they stopped what they were doing and bowed in greeting.
‘Doctor, you made it! I’m so glad to see you,’ said one young diver from Wakayama, whose name escaped me. I was moved by his warmth. I’d treated him in the hospital once, although I couldn’t recall what for. Sister Bernice would know.
‘Ibaraki-sensei, is that you?’ Harada was crouched next to an open suitcase on the floor. Seeing his face, shiny with perspiration, brought to mind those nights in Broome we’d spent drinking, playing mahjong, faces gleaming above steaming bowls of soup. But when Harada stood up, I was shocked to see how thin he’d become in the few weeks since I’d last seen him. He walked towards me and gripped my shoulder in an awkward embrace. ‘When did you arrive?’
‘Just last night,’ I said. ‘You came from Harvey?’
‘Yes. Another military doctor arrived last week, so they sent me here. But look at you; you’ve lost so much weight.’
His collarbones felt like they could snap beneath the force of my hand. His skin was hot.
‘It’s nothing,’ he said, pushing away my arm. ‘I don’t like the food here.’
‘Has the doctor seen you?’
‘Yes, yes. Me and five hundred other men.’
Behind him, one of the divers who’d been listening to our conversation looked at me and shook his head. I wondered what he meant by that gesture, but I didn’t have a chance to find out as someone shouted nearby, a repeated word, taken up by a chorus of people as it was passed from tent to tent.
‘We have to go,’ Harada said. ‘Headcount near the fence. Come, I’ll show you.’
He packed the last of his belongings into his suitcase and closed the lid. We followed the stream of people walking towards the fence that faced the internal road. The strength of the sun seemed to have multiplied in the short time I’d been inside the tent. Even the air was hot, burning my throat whenever I took a breath.
‘It’s not like Broome, is it?’ I said, one hand shielding my eyes. ‘No. It’s a long way from Broome,’ Harada said, gazing at the rows of canvas tents, the wire fence and the f lat, dusty expanse beyond. He coughed. ‘Think this is hot? It was worse two weeks ago. Forty-three degrees. Even hotter in the tents. Felt like hell on earth.’ He gasped between every few words,
as if the effort of talking and walking was too much.
When we neared the fence, Harada and I separated to join our respective rows. Yamada beckoned for me to stand in line next to him. I regretted not having the foresight to bring a hat as many of the men around me had. We baked in the sun as a procession of four army personnel entered the camp from the gate to our right.
‘Start the count!’ the officer at the front of the line said, and the others peeled away to walk between the rows, counting as they went. The remaining officer stared at each internee in the first row. He wore long khaki trousers, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows and a khaki peaked hat, whose brim plunged his eyes into shadow. His mouth was a perfectly still line. In his right hand he held a riding crop.
The officers who’d been counting reassembled at the front and compared numbers.
‘All present?’ the head officer asked. ‘All present, sir,’ they chorused.
The head officer stepped forward and addressed us. ‘It has come to my attention that some of you are not observing protocol regarding cleanliness. Belongings in tents must be neat at all times, and beds must be made each day. Failure to do so will result in severe reprimand, and repeat offenders will be detained with a view to punishment. To facilitate this, the other officers and I will conduct surprise inspections of tents and other areas.’
Yamada groaned. ‘Just what we need. Major Locke going through our belongings.’
I squinted against the glare, praying the major would stop speaking and we could go back to our tents soon. He droned on and on. Even I, who had a good grasp of English, had trouble following his speech. My nostrils felt as if they were on fire.
Several rows behind me, I heard a thud. I turned around, but couldn’t see past the other men turning around like me. I heard urgent whispers.
‘. . . imperative that you observe these rules as—’ Major Locke broke off. ‘Silence down the back. What’s going on? ’
He turned to the young officer next to him. ‘McCubbin, see what’s the matter, will you?’
The officer jogged to the back of the group. After a while, he called back: ‘Someone’s collapsed, sir. He’s on the ground. Must be the heat.’
Yamada turned to me. ‘Sensei, you should go.’
I pushed my way through the lines until I saw a circle of backs surrounding someone prostrate on the ground.
‘I am a doctor. Can I help?’
When the men stepped back to make room for me I recognised the man on the ground.
‘Harada!’ I dropped to his side. ‘Harada, it’s me, Ibaraki. Can you hear me?’
His body was covered in sweat. His eyes were half-closed. I pulled up his lids and his eyeballs rolled.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘We were just standing there, and then he was on the ground,’ the man next to me said.
I checked Harada’s pulse. It was racing. The officer gave me a canteen of water and I pressed it to Harada’s lips.
‘Heat exhaustion?’ the officer asked, crouching beside me. ‘I don’t think so. He’s sweating too much. I think it’s
something else. He should go to hospital.’ ‘I’ll get a stretcher.’
I asked some of the men to shelter Harada from the sun while we waited for the officer to return.
Harada drifted in and out of consciousness, sometimes opening his eyes to look at me, at other times lolling his head to one side, prompting me to check his pulse again.
At last the young officer appeared with a stretcher and another guard. The three of us eased Harada onto the canvas.
He looked small, his feet not even reaching the end of the stretcher. The two men hoisted him up, and we walked slowly to the exit. Major Locke had resumed his talk about cleanliness. ‘Hang on, he’s not coming with us, is he?’ the guard said
to the officer, nodding at me.
‘Please, I’m a doctor.’ My throat tightened at the thought of leaving Harada in his precarious state. ‘This man is very ill. If we delay any longer he might die. If something should happen on the way, I can help.’
The officer’s face clouded. He looked back at Major Locke, who was still talking. ‘Well, okay, then. I’ll have to be on guard. Here, you take this end.’
I took the ends of the stretcher from him, careful not to jolt Harada. We crab-legged to the gate and onto Broadway. After shuffling along the internal road for several minutes, lurching beneath our load, we finally passed through the birdcage gate and emerged onto the track towards headquarters. My palms became slippery as the handles of the stretcher scraped against the wounds on my hands. I winced.
Despite my best efforts to keep a quick pace, I slowed under the load. The young officer, whose name I’d discovered was McCubbin, offered to take my end. I tried to hide my injuries, but blood stained the handles.
‘Christ—is that from you?’
McCubbin stared at the crimson streaks.
‘Yesterday, when I carried my suitcases from the station . . .’ ‘Geez, I wish you’d told me. I wouldn’t have made you carry him.’ He shook his head.
We passed a camp on our right, smaller than Camp 14. It was prettier, too, with shrubs and saplings shading the huts. A couple of Italians who were crouched near the fence, weeding a garden, lifted their heads and watched us walk by. We walked in silence for a few minutes more, then the scattered buildings of headquarters came into view. A large, concrete structure that cast a long shadow on the earth, and rows of nearly identical galvanised-iron buildings surrounded by stone-edge f lower beds. The hospital was one such structure, with a peaked roof and windows on all four sides. Inside, standing screens divided the room into two wards: the beds nearest the door contained two ailing Australians, one asleep with a towel on his head and the other with a bandaged foot resting on a pillow. I assumed they were military personnel. From the beds beyond the screens, occasional coughs punctuated the silence.
The medical officer who had examined me the previous day stood at the foot of one of the Australians’ beds. He wore a khaki shirt and shorts beneath his white coat. He looked up from his clipboard.
‘Another one? What is it, the heat?’
‘His pulse is very fast. He’s sweating and has a fever. I do not think it is the heat,’ I said.
The physician glanced at me. ‘You’re the doctor I saw yesterday, aren’t you?’
‘Bring the patient into the internees’ ward, then.’ He indi- cated the back of the room. ‘You, too, doctor. You can help with the diagnosis.’
There were only two Caucasians among the ten or so patients in the internees’ ward; the rest were Japanese. They stared dully as we manoeuvred Harada onto an empty bed.
The doctor checked Harada’s pulse, temperature and eyes. ‘Well, he definitely has a fever. How long’s he been like this? ’ he asked.
‘Almost half an hour,’ I said. ‘Has he had any water?’
‘Yes, a little. A few mouthfuls.’ ‘What’s his name?’
‘Harada. Tsuguo. Or just Harada.’
‘Harada? Can you hear me, Harada? Can you open your eyes?’ Harada turned his head away.
The doctor put his stethoscope to Harada’s chest. ‘Has he been coughing?’ he asked.
‘I was with him for only a few minutes, but I think so, yes.’ He continued to examine Harada, checking his glands and kidneys. After a minute he folded his stethoscope and
returned it to his coat pocket.
‘You’re right, it’s not the heat. This patient has TB. I’m surprised we didn’t detect it when he first arrived. Of course, we’ve had hundreds of new internees in the past few weeks.’ Fever, chills, shortness of breath. I often saw cases of tuberculosis in Broome. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I felt crestfallen at the thought that my failure to detect the condi-
tion had allowed it to spread and worsen.
‘George!’ the doctor called out. Moments later the assistant who’d been present at my medical examination entered the room. ‘Can you grab this internee’s file?’ He turned to me. ‘What
was his name?’
‘Harada. Tsuguo Harada,’ I said. ‘H-A-R-A-D-A?’ the doctor asked. ‘That’s right. From 14C.’
‘And what’s your name?’ ‘Ibaraki. Tomokazu Ibaraki.’
‘Dr Ibraki,’ he said, mispronouncing it. ‘I’m Doctor Ashton. We could do with another doctor at camp. You could work at the infirmary in 14B. You’d also have to help the orderlies. You’d be paid of course. Not much, but it beats sitting around doing nothing. How does that sound?’ He held out his hand. When I hesitated, he glanced down. His expression changed. ‘Good Lord. Whatever happened to your hands?’
After Harada was given nourishment and allowed to rest, his condition became stable. In the afternoon, he was moved to the tuberculosis ward of the infirmary. I visited him the next day. The complex hugged the eastern corner of 14B, a stone’s throw from the duty guard camp. As I approached, I could see the guards and officers through the fence arriving from headquarters in trucks or on horseback along the dusty road.
The three galvanised-iron buildings of the infirmary stood side by side, perhaps the largest structures in our camp. An enclosed walkway ran through the middle of the buildings, connecting them, and it was through this I entered, eventually finding my way along the dim corridor and past the other wards to where Harada was kept. The TB ward was at the back of the complex, in a room isolated in its own building with a heavy curtain covering the doorway. Inside, the shutters were closed against the wind and it was dim, even though it was sunny outside. A dozen patients occupied the room, the sigh of their breaths and gentle rise and fall of their chests the only signs they were alive. Harada lay in a bed close to the door, and when I stood beside him, his eyes fluttered open and he gave a brief smile.
I decided I would apply to work as an orderly at the infir- mary. I’d be able to monitor Harada, and I could think of no better use of my time at camp.
I mentioned the idea to Yamada after lunch, the midday sun bearing down on us as we walked back to our tent. With little shade at camp, there was no escape from the heat.
‘Is that part of the voluntary paid labour scheme, where the Australian government pays you a shilling a day?’ Yamada asked.
‘I think so.’ I mopped my brow with a handkerchief.
‘We discussed it at the executive meeting last week. Some of the New Caledonians expressed interest in working in the vegetable gardens. While we don’t oppose it, we don’t want to work for the enemy just for pocket money. You can see how that presents a problem, can’t you?’
I blinked. Yamada’s expression was serious.
‘But we also know boredom could lead to unrest in camp,’ he continued, ‘so we’ve approved the scheme, with the suggestion participants commit small acts of sabotage from time to time.’
‘Acts of sabotage?’
‘Pulling out plants, planting seedlings upside down, that sort of thing. Not so much that it’s obvious, but a few disruptions here and there. But in your case, that would be impossible.’ He laughed. ‘Imagine! Deliberately making patients ill. No, your employment at the infirmary is for the good of the camp, so I’m sure Mori would find no problem in you working there. What’s the matter, Doctor? Are you all right?’
At the mention of ill patients, I had suddenly felt weak. I pressed my fingertips to my eyelids. I saw blackened limbs and rotting flesh.
‘Just the sun,’ I said. ‘I think I’m all right.’
At the start of my first shift, one of the orderlies greeted me inside the entrance to the infirmary. Stepping in from the sunlight, I took a moment to adjust to the gloom. A fan circled overhead, blowing air onto my face.
‘Sensei, it’s an honour to have you join our team,’ the young man said, bowing deeply. His long, thin fingers fretted the sides of his trousers. His name was Shiobara and he was from Saitama prefecture, although he’d been a clerk at a lacquer factory in the Dutch East Indies the previous six years. I followed him along the walkway into the first building. Two wards of about sixty feet in length opened up on either side. ‘These are the general internee wards—for fever, malaria, non-contagious infections and the like,’ Shiobara explained. A small chair and desk stood at the entrance of each ward.
A stocky young man sat at one of the desks, cheek resting on his hand, eyes shut. His lids flew open when he heard us. He stood up and bowed several times, apologising for his sleepiness.
‘This is Matsuda, from tent twenty-one,’ Shiobara said. ‘He’s been working long hours. We all have.’
Light streamed through the open windows. About twenty beds lined the walls, more than half of which were occupied. The clean, spartan room, the metal beds and white sheets— even the patients who watched us in silence—in some ways felt like home. I couldn’t help but think back to my first few months in Broome, when my senses were keen to the strange- ness around me and everything appeared brighter, sharper and crisper, as if a veil had lifted.
We continued along the walkway, crossing into the middle building. An office and storage space opened up on one side. Among the cabinets, shelves crammed with books and odds and ends, chairs, pillows and piles of blankets was a space for the orderlies: a clearing big enough for a few mattresses, three chairs and a low table. This was where I would spend much of my time, and where I’d sleep if I was on the night shift. Although it wasn’t much to look at, the evidence of an abandoned go game on the table gave it a homely feel.
Shiobara led me into the final building. The light dimmed. A curtain of thick white cloth covered the entrance to each ward. ‘You already know the TB ward,’ Shiobara said, nodding to his right. ‘And this is the ward for pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses. The orderlies for these wards don’t have to sit in the room due to the risk of infection.’
I followed Shiobara outside to a small one-room building near the entrance gate. The heavy aroma of frying fat reached me, and when we stepped into the dark room I heard it sizzle and pop. The dull thwack of a blade on wood stopped. Once my eyes adjusted, I saw a stout Occidental man in a white apron staring at me.
‘This is Francesco, the hospital cook,’ Shiobara said. ‘He used to work in a restaurant. He makes all the meals for the patients, and for us, too.’
The cook looked at me and shrugged, then returned to chopping onions. Shiobara showed me where the trays, dishes and utensils were kept and where to wash them. As breakfast was about to be served, he demonstrated how to portion meals and loaves of bread. Two other orderlies entered the room, both from the Dutch East Indies. Together we carried the trays to our waiting charges.
Soon afterwards, Shiobara left me to return to camp. He’d worked the night shift and had hardly slept. I continued alone for the rest of the day, asking the other orderlies for help from time to time. The work wasn’t difficult but it required stamina—all day I shuttled meals, cleaned dishes, mopped the f loor and changed bedpans, so that by the end of my shift my legs trembled with exhaustion. It brought to mind my hospital internship in Japan, where I’d spent much of my time cleaning up after the patients. Eight years later, it seemed I had returned to the point at which I’d begun.
To purchase your copy of After Darkness, head to your local bookstore or ebook retailer.
Sam’s dad is not like the other dads at swimming lessons. He does not bring a paper or work from the office, he does not chat to the gym-mums on the sideline or do his own laps. He watches the whole lesson, thirty minutes of his son’s Frog-level swim class. I used to think this was because he genuinely cared about his son’s aquatic development, but now I think that he is watching me.
I duck down in the water, put my hand down the front of my cossie and pull up each tit. The chlorine makes them sticky giving me a push-up cleavage in my bright blue one-piece. It has the words ‘Swim Instructor’ printed in capitals across the bust, which only draws more attention to this little trick. Sam’s dad has only ever seen me in the water, which is good in some ways. I am a strong swimmer and move more gracefully in the water than I do on land. The chlorine dries out my oily skin, and also burns out all my arm and leg hair – I look smoother and softer in the water. However, Sam’s dad does not know other things about me that he could only know through seeing me dry. He does not know that my hair is actually thick and blonde-ish, because in the water it is always brown and thin, or that my legs are longer than average. He does not know that I have a lot of friends and can also run long-distance. He does not know that this is just part-time work for me, and that in my other life I study at uni and have plans to travel.
Sam is the type of little boy that I think Sam’s dad and I would have if we had a child together. He’s solid for a six-year-old, scruffy haired and loud. He hasn’t got that pale, sunken chest that some of the other little boys do. He doesn’t shiver, even in winter, and he’s not afraid to put his head all the way under. With his hair slicked back, you can see he’s got his dad’s face shape, already a hint of a jaw. But I think his lips and even his nose are similar to mine.
Even though he’s not the fastest, I always used to let him go first, but lately I’ve had to mix it up after some of the parents complained. It was funny, because that time I taught Hugo Weaving’s daughter, I always let her go first too, and none of the parents said anything. But I think they were all trying to look good in front of Hugo as well. The parents of my three-thirty class are a bad bunch though. Lawyers, doctors, primary school teachers, anxious stay-at-home mums. Already Amy’s mum has warned me that Amy might be fatigued due to an excursion to the IMAX today, and Todd’s dad has requested a chat at the end of class regarding the development of his son’s ‘windmill arms’. But Sam’s dad just sits back and watches.
Last week, Todd set off a ‘code brown’ mid-lesson, not your simple dip-and-flick floater either. No, Todd’s was the kind that spreads across the surface of the pool, like an oil spill, but chunkier. Some of the parents rushed their kids out to the outdoor showers, but Sam’s dad stayed. In accordance with protocol, Pool One had to shut for twelve hours to let the chlorine do its magic, which meant double classes in Pool Two. The instructors had our own protocol when this happened: ‘double shit or nothing’. If we could get a second ‘code brown’ in Pool Two, that meant double closure, classes cancelled, early home time, full pay. When kids asked us to go to the toilet, we said ‘swim it off’. Except if Sam asks, I let Sam go to the toilet.
Sam’s dad is good to him. He never yells at him from the sidelines or bribes him with hot chips. He doesn’t even really tell him he’s swimming well. But once, every so often, at the end of a truly excellent lap, he’ll give Sam a wink, which I sometimes think is just for me. He takes his time after the lesson too, he never rushes Sam or me. He waits on the sideline until I have given all the children their high-fives. He waits with a kid-size towel ready to wrap Sam up. He dries his son’s chest, his bottom. He brushes over Sam’s face that is like his own, and those lips and that nose, that are like mine. He packs up the swimming bag carefully, making sure he’s got everything, slowing down our last moments together at the pool.
One time we did laps together. It was a Saturday morning but I thought it was a Sunday and had come in for my shift. I was about to leave and somehow I recognised the back half of him swimming in the ‘fast lane’ in the outdoor pool. I stripped down to my cossie and put on my goggles and jumped into the lane. The ‘fast lane’ was for laps under 50 seconds which I wanted to show him I could do. I timed my push off so I’d meet him about halfway when he was coming back. My stroke was strong and smooth, I entered the water fingers first so I that I made an elegant lack of splash. I swam with my face looking forward, which is a weird way to swim, and tried to catch his eye as we passed each other. He had those dark, reflective goggles on so I couldn’t be sure, but I was pretty sure he saw me. At one point I caught up so I was just a metre behind him. I watched his big feet kick in perfect rhythm. I wanted to reach out and tap his toes and overtake him, but I didn’t want him to be embarrassed so I stayed behind and watched his feet.
The first time Sam’s dad spoke to me it was months later – January – just before Sam’s lesson started. He walked right up to the pool edge and squatted down so that his sneakers were on the grate and were getting wet as the children jumped in for their lesson. He said to me that Sam’s school swimming carnival was coming up in a few weeks. Just that. No instructions. Of course, every other parent had said the same thing to me that week, but there was something about the way Sam’s dad said it. The way he looked at me when he said it. The unspoken test he was setting me.
That lesson I trained Sam hard. I made him go first five times in the lesson and announced it with such confidence that none of the other parents questioned it. He slapped at the water with his hands. He swallowed water and burped it up again. His cheeks were wet and red. The next week I taught him to move his arms faster, to grip the water, to take more strokes and shorter breaths. I taught him how to swim without goggles, his eyes pink and watery.
It was the week before his carnival that I told Sam I was going to teach him to dive. He said no, his face suddenly smaller and bluer. The other kids, sensing Sam’s fear, their leader these past few weeks, started shivering and shaking too, looking over to their mums and dads on the sideline. I looked over too. Sam’s dad’s eyes were on me. I knew what he wanted.
Looking at the other mums and dads, I thought back to all those times I’d spent wondering about Sam’s mum. That I’d waited to see her face. It’d been three terms and she’d never shown up to watch Sam swim. I asked for her name once, I made it a game and asked all the kids but only remembered Sam’s answer. Joan. A dry, old name. But Joan didn’t exist in this world, here, at the pool. She was not on Sam’s mind as he stood on the edge of the pool. His toes over the edge, his arms slack, his hands gripping each other, aimed down towards the blue water. She was not on Sam’s dad’s mind, watching his son. They will not remember her when they think back to these moments at the pool. They will remember me.
Sam will remember the feeling of my hands pushing his hands through the water in strong, even strokes, the sound of my voice muffled through water, my face clouded with bubbles, showing him how to breathe underwater. My hand pushing him off the pool edge, the free fall into shallow water. And when he dived in and stayed beneath the water, as he lingered on its shiny bottom, he will remember the quiet as he waited. Waited and searched through blue water, slowly turning red, for my face to appear. And so I dived to the bottom and scooped him up, this little boy. Lighter in the water, smaller in my arms. I swam him to the sideline, pressed his solid little chest like I’d been taught in training lessons on plastic torsos that tasted of vinegar. I pressed and pressed and felt Sam’s chest turning blue and soft as the minutes went by. I put my lips to his lips, my nose to his nose, the resemblance of our features clear, surely, to all those watching. The gym-mums and the lawyers, Amy’s mum, Todd’s dad. But more important than all of them, Sam’s dad, standing not too far away. Kneeling on the floor, I could see his feet that I have seen before, in the water, but this time they are dry and they are not moving. Sam’s dad will remember standing very still and watching, watching that girl at the swimming pool. He will not know my name, or my hair or legs or travel plans. He will remember me wet and strong in my instructor’s swimming costume. He will remember me by the pool side, breathing air into his little blue boy, into Sam. He will think back to this time and he will remember me.
Michael Clarke is in the viewing room at Old Trafford, Yeezus howling in his eardrums. He can’t help but feel that the brash synths and the turbulent rhymes are synchronising perfectly with the carnage on the field. It’s been a tough morning already for Australia, with two down early, and Clarke’s humble demeanour is charged with resentment; knowing it will inevitably be him that has to face the music at three down for not much and resurrect the situation for the team, again. Luckily for him – or perhaps not luck but the product of hours and hours of training and disappointment and rebirth and grit and unbridled ego – he is magnificent at batting.
Predictably, the third wicket falls before he can even finish the album, just as Yeezy is getting into his stride – Star Wars furs yeah I’m rockin’ Chewbacca, number one Chief Rocka number one Chief Rocka oh . . .
Abrupt but whatever, he unplugs himself, he has to get out there. He is received with applause, cheers, boos, jeers – the kind of response that lets everybody know he’s the pivotal wicket, that he runs the game, that people buy tickets just for this, that everyone is invested in his success or failure.
He struts onto the square, practises a few short jabs – elbow up nice and high, strong wrists. He reaches the crease, adjusts his gloves, surveys the field, asks for leg – closer to you, closer, yes – scrapes the crease, smacks down on it several times. And what does he see as the tall blond Englishman runs in at him with a red stain on his trousers and a red ball in his right hand? It’s a total transformation, and Clarke’s management is already midway through consultation on patenting this strategy as both a very effective youth-coaching method and probably the bestselling Australian video game of all time.
As Stuart Broad runs up from his mark, pivoting the ball in his wrist to get into his action, Clarke spends these moments mercilessly objectifying him. The little pivot of the ball is enough to get started. Like every music video he remembers from his Sunday mornings at home with ‘Video Hits’ in the U14 days; the bouncing girl with the dainty wrists, running toward him urgently. Broad metamorphoses, elongating her hair, shaking it out, slicking it back – slow motion – in a continual, endless forward movement toward the camera as it dollies back away from her: the eternal shimmying of the model toward the rapper sitting on his retreating motorised throne.
As Broad gets into his delivery stride and gets side-on to bowl, Clarke goes all the way for maximum objectification. He assesses Broad’s legs as they jump, both for speed of the delivery and as a target – her legs spread wide. He adjusts his vision up to completely focus on the ball in his hand – which, for Clarke, simultaneously represents the baby he ain’t ever gonna pay child support for at least not with no pre-nup’; the beauteous woman that he needs to watch closely and with a protective eye to ensure she doesn’t slip into the wrong hands; and, lastly, the female’s ejaculate which he wishes to avoid aggressing his face or really any part of his body, and to get away as far as possible, because signifiers of female pleasure are gross.
Further there’s the metamorphosis of the objectified woman, previously Broad, into the ball, now an object of desire; a power dynamic he requires in order to keep his fetishised desire for victory intact.
The ball leaves the broad’s hand. It’s in the air for around a third of a second. During this time, Clarke makes an instinctive first step forwards toward the ball – the rapper confirming his positive intent, his urge to be nearer the prey – but then always there must be contingency in the batsman’s movement, awareness, alertness, he knows that in this moment he will make a crucial decision. Will he push outwards, lean into the stroke, along the carpet through the covers, following through gently, barely more than a push? Or will he go inside-out, leaning back, lifting it up over the covers and splaying it? Or will he move toward it and then shun it, letting it pass? Let’s not get caught up in the moment, he tells himself, there’re a thousand yous, there’s only one of me.
The key is to objectify the ball to the absolute limit, to consistently desire, yearn for, want, but not necessarily respect it; so that it can be dispatched at a moment’s notice; a hard crack and it flutters off to the boundary only to return about forty-five seconds later, bewildered, slightly scratched on one side but licked soon after by the bowler, seam slightly frayed, but still returning for more punishment. Clarke flashes for a moment to the plight of Rihanna and feels a weird empathy for the ball just as it passes him and he plays and misses outside the off-stump, tentative. Broad runs up to him, stands over him, mutters: ‘Plenty more of that coming. Just back of a length where you like it?’
Clarke stares him down. ‘I love it.’
Broad smirks, walks back to his mark, receives the ball from mid-off, licks his finger, rubs the ball, rubs it against his trousers four times, pivots it in his hand, going through the same routine of objectification. He thinks about putting it back of a length and having it hit the seam and move slightly away from Clarke by imagining Clarke – little Pup – as a woman on the street he hopes to drive past slowly, low suspension, and just get a whiff of, the slightest nick, before slipping off into the cordon. He imagines himself running into the huddle, received and lauded as the man who took that woman’s edge.
Clarke sees the ball for what it is, clearly this time – bruised leather, stitches – and moves forward in a confident stride, elbow high, driving elegantly straight past the broad, whose legs are split in her follow-through and cannot get her long arms down to intercept it as it rushes past, then down the slope, past the super-imposed advertising, to the boundary. A cheer erupts from the green-and-gold portion of the stadium; Clarke walks up the pitch, prodding his bat into cracks, lifting his head to speak to Broad, and says: ‘You know my biggest pain in life is that I’ll never be able to see myself bat live?’
‘Probably for the best, mate. You can barely get it up, let alone keep it straight—’
‘Look, imma let you finish, but Jimmy Anderson was one of the best bowlers of all time. Of all time.’
‘Wait. Are you…quoting Kanye West at me? Do you know how white you are?’
‘Oh come on. How could you be me and want to be someone else?’
‘Jesus Christ, mate.’
Broad walks back to his mark, ready to deliver again. The banter and the to-and-fro continues for some time, Clarke getting his eye in – that is, toning the acuteness of his objectification – and, simultaneously, Broad trying to objectify Clarke; work out his weaknesses, his frailties, and exploit them so as to tempt him into a false stroke and defeat him, sending him back to the dressing room to take a shower and be replaced by someone else. Clarke is no floozy, though. He has spent many long hours on his technique. He spent his teens in his father’s indoor sports’ centre; just him and the bowling machine, shot after shot, like an unlimited supply of pornography being fired at him at 150kph – ‘night in, night out’. His chafed hands, his tired eyes, his increasingly immaculate technique.
Then came his glorious debut in India, a flourish of drives, cuts, pulls, untainted by the possibility of failure. The opposition was unprepared; he flayed them through the air, with class, style, without restraint. A series of successes followed, both with bat and ball, his keen eye snaring scalps on torn-up pitches in India, oppositions hapless.
But his technique was too flamboyant. Too many balls through the covers in the air, too many chances for the opposition to snare him. Why was that? Carelessness? Naive self-belief? The pomp of a rapper who thinks he can have it all, who taunts the Jay-Zs of the industry calling them old and past it, a young nobody who wears all the chains, has all the degraded babes in his videos – rack city bitch rack rack city bitch – but doesn’t have the substance, stamina, longevity, to really back it up. Objectification without intent – a pretty motherfucker with fuckin’ problems – but without the drive or the hubris of a Kanye to really stand up to the pressure.
He had to learn intent. The batsman as stylist, yes, but never loose with his strokes. Objectification as an art form, not a way of life: Kanye West, holed up in his Paris apartment, discussing his new interest in ceramics.
You watch the bowler, make him your bitch. The ball in the air, know it’s yours, watch it onto the bat, pummel it, watch the fielder sweat along after it, relax, know you are about to do it again. Make the bowler work, perspire, running to you for your pleasure, you are the fulcrum, you do as you please, cut it severely, behind point, flying away, he thinks you’re being rash but you are the epitome of control, deft placement, objectifying the objectification itself – one man entertaining an entire stadium (and all of the cameras trained on it) simply by depicting a sadistic urge toward an object of his desire.
Clarke’s well into his innings now, the seventies, pure concentration, objectification, at a breezy run-a-ball. His wagon wheel is immaculate, his placement perfect. His team-mates continue to crumble though; they don’t have quite the same purity of intent as he. Five down already, ambivalent toward their target, their technique, their purpose. They really need him to push on to salvage a workable total.
Swann is at him now, spinning and dipping, and Clarke is both forward and back, advancing at him, then back and across, cutting him in front of point, pulling him to cow corner, lifting him over his head: relentless. Every now and then Clarke will defend, dropping it down onto the pitch, as if in deference, as if to say, I cannot control you always, I cannot dispatch you always, you deserve at least some of my, albeit waning, respect.
On into the nineties he goes, clipping it off his pads, running it fine, never settling, always moving. But each time, each punch, is another lesson to the opposition that Clarke will punish you if you don’t respect him, that the crease he has marked is his throne. He will push out of it, or sit back inside it, but always be back, centred, present, to punish anything that doesn’t respect his ability.
Broad comes back for another spell and touches on Clarke’s corridor of uncertainty. Each time Clarke misses he winces, recoils, thinking of objectifications gone wrong: Janet Jackson’s nipples, Kim Kardashian’s sex tape; times in which the intent was there, but the execution was slightly off. You can’t just simply go malfunctioning your wardrobe at the Superbowl, or push too far forward on something that’s back of a length, rising up onto the splice of the bat and dropping just short of the gully. But perhaps you can use a sex tape to advance your career in the right circumstances, if your image is tied more to scandal than morality, or if, for example, you go too hard at a pull shot and get a bottom edge and it runs fine and goes for four – the fine leg, running around and diving uselessly. Sometimes fortune works in your favour. Sometimes an edge will run through slips or you will be acquitted of a statutory rape charge.
And there he is at ninety-nine runs and he really needs to lock this down, really breathe in, really look up at Swann and analyse the situation and really focus in on the breasts he might have – like beach balls, bouncing through the crowd – and his hips that could be swaying; like the cheerleaders cricket is ever-too-traditional to utilise, and his eyes so big and brown as he glares running in, wanting him: does that mean he’s trying the arm ball? Does that mean she wants to really twerk it for him?
Swann jumps, pivots and delivers, and Clarke’s eyes light up; he looks at her rotations, anti-clockwise coming towards him, that’s off to leg, workable; that’s seductive, that’s dipping, that’s voluptuous, pneumatic, punishable; that’s so much like the balls he’s seen glided away for centuries all through his childhood, but he has to get to the pitch of it, has to really look at it in the eye, let it approach him, look it up and down, judge it, fill it with his disdain, stop it before it can turn on him or change its mind or have agency or even occupy its own subjectivity at all, before it can deviate: he must whip it through square. And he does. He advances one, two steps out and then the forward extension, head over the ball immaculately, channeling the smooth, effortless flows of Mark Waugh and Andre 3000; he follows through on it, closing the face of the bat to get it in front of the square fielder. It shoots off right out of the sweet spot and spurts away with force, through the field, trickling down toward the leg boundary, trickling, trickling, and finding the rope, where she ends up, tied between rope and barricade. The crowd erupts. He kisses his helmet and raises his bat.
As he contemplated the half-completed project, he noticed a young woman walking past the house, beach towel draped over one shoulder, canvas bag hanging from the other. He was struck by two things – her beauty, and her Nike Air Max trainers.Read More
From our Sci-Fi Edition, here's Terence Bumbly recalling the unexpected developments that came with the invention of teleportation.Read More
Ever since Father went to war, Eliza had been in charge of the whole house. Being ungainly and feeble of wit, it wasn’t expected Father would last out the first week. Sure enough, the Tuesday after he left, Eliza received a telegram: Father had choked to death on a flag. A small piece of that flag was all that came back by way of remembrance.
Eliza was the prettiest of all the sisters. That was until the other sisters were born, each emerging from Mother more pleasing to the eye than she. Eliza grew unrelentingly, and by 17 she was so tall she had to fashion all her clothes from bedclothes and unspun flax.
The second born, Marina, was fair of face and large of bosom. Then came the only boy child, Gene, who had sweaty palms and a bosom to rival Marina’s. Theodora was almost sweet looking, in a sickly, dying way.
The final emergence from Mother’s exhausted womb was Brevillia. Her sharp corners made her a great challenge to birth, and once she had arrived, Mother died immediately. Brevillia was sleek, white and metallic in nature, with a long black cord and two rectangular slots in her back. Her physical qualities and ambivalent emotional responses made her difficult to raise, and by 12 she was no more than ten by four by six inches.
As the seasons passed by, the sisters and Gene learnt to darn trousers and press flowers between the pages of A Modest Proposal. When Father went to work, they’d climb trees and dress up as Mother and bury each other in the garden. The big decaying estate was a trove of delights for the imaginative children, who had incorporated as a small theatrical society before maturity had befallen any of them.
Their first production was an abridged retelling of ‘The Second Nun’, their very favourite of The Canterbury Tales. Eliza had directed the production at the age of 11, staging it al fresco in the sprawling, tumbling grounds. Marina and Gene had shared the role of the second nun, for efficiency of line learning and their physical similarities. Brevillia had played the second nun’s habit, and Theodora had acted as production manager, being too sick to perform a role in the play proper. The production was deemed to be of critical importance and modest commercial significance by the society in the minutes of their first general meeting post bump out.
‘It simply isn’t fair,’ said Theodora, crying yellowy tears into the settee.
Many years had passed since that first memorable production. Eliza was charged with the doing of everything around the house, and Brevillia and Marina, the most attractive of the set, had begun their first emergence into society. Theodora spent her days idly dying, and Gene was slowly fashioning himself into a replica of their useless late father.
‘Why should Brevillia go to a party, leaving me at home, when I am her elder? This is, why, it’s horrid!’
‘Oh, Theodora, don’t swear!’ said Eliza, who then bellowed at the fire, ‘Catch, you disobedient fire!’ while her backside wiggled in skirts she’d sewn from a brown tablecloth. ‘I know it seems unfair, but as the prettiest among us all, she has surpassed your natural birth-order superiority, just as Marina did mine with her bosom.’
‘I should like to take you to a party,’ said Gene, placing his fat pink hands on Eliza’s backside.
‘Goodness gracious, Gene!’ said Eliza. ‘I should take my hand to your backside with vigour!’
‘I should like that greatly,’ said Gene, as a drop of saliva fell out of his open mouth onto the fire.
Eliza could have sworn that the big open fire shuddered in disgust. Silently and in earnest, she apologised to it and to the great dark parlour, to its velvet curtains, to the paintings of ancestors and bowls of apples lining the walls, and to the leather-bound maps on the bookshelf for the fluids of her appalling brother.
Eliza spent her days preserving oranges and avoiding the forthcomings of her brother, Gene, who, in a cruel twist of irony, was the only man who would ever truly desire her as a woman.
‘Eliza, let me list the ways that I can make you happy. In skip rope, I can jump just as high as half the boys at the academy, and I once threw a blackboard duster at an old dog and got away! And I am ever-so resourceful. Why, just last week I split my pants and so I just sat on a beehive until the wax sealed them up. And my prospects are better than yours. Once the lawyer comes back with the paperwork, this whole estate will be mine. And you know what I shall do? I shall kick you out unless you agree to be my wife and all that entails. And, to whit, I am nice!’
Eliza looked at sickly Theodora coughing on the couch, then thought of her other sisters and the things in the room she loved so dearly, and briefly considered the prospect. Then she spotted the outline of Gene’s scrotum pulsating like a heart through his britches and felt ill.
‘Gene, did you mean it when you said you’d do anything for me?’
‘I don’t recall saying that.’
‘Well, I should like you to go out into the snow and cut down the cherry tree so I can make a pie.’
‘Might I simply pick the cherries from the tree?’
‘No, for this recipe requires seven ounces of cherries, two ounces of bark and two pounds of inexplicable suffering.’
‘Also, we pledged all the axes to the war effort, so you must use this butter knife to complete your task.’
‘Well, I once jammed a scone with a butter knife, proving that it can be used for non-butter-related tasks. I shall do it, Eliza. I shall do it and prove my worthiness!’
And with that Gene put on Marina’s favourite housecoat, which he shared with her because of their improbable equi-bosom, and took the butter knife into the snow.
‘Eliza,’ said Theodora, phlegmily, ‘it isn’t cherry season.’
‘I know, but I painted some red dots on a wolf. Now get out your slate. It’s time for today’s philo- sophy lesson.’
‘Can’t we do a science lesson so that I might learn how to not be sick any more?’
‘Healthy mind healthy body. Write that down. That concludes today’s philosophy lesson,’ said Eliza.
‘I wish I was well enough to return to healthy people’s school,’ said Theodora, handing her the agreed-upon shilling.
Eliza and Theodora heard a carriage pull up by the front gate. Moments later, Marina and Brevillia entered the lounge room.
Theodora suddenly remembered how angry she was that she couldn’t go to the party. ‘How was your awful party?’ she said, crying again.
‘Theodora, don’t swear!’ said Eliza.
‘Defrost,’ said Brevillia.
‘Brevillia, what language! Who taught you that word?’
‘Well, I accept your apology. See, Theodora, you could learn a lesson or two from your little sister. Now, Brevillia, Marina, come, come sit down and tell us all about your party.’
‘Do we have to sit next to Theodora? Can’t we get a sort of partition?’ said Marina.
‘I told you when we did last month’s budget, it was apples or a partition, and you chose apples. Now, Theodora, be a good girl and turn your head so you’re breathing your plague away from everybody. Sisters, tell us of your evening!’
‘Oh, it was splendid. Simply splendid,’ said Marina. ‘I feel as though everything in the world was leading up to this night, and nothing need come after. If I should die in my sleep, it would matter not a jot.’ She sighed and swooned over the chair arm.
‘You would not believe what happened at the party. Brevillia and I were standing at the buffet with Henry Swizzler, Wallace Huffington, Flemington le Courboisier and Richard Snarfuckle. Everyone was admiring our party dresses, and Brevillia told a most wicked joke.’
‘Reheat,’ said Brevillia, and Eliza and Marina laughed, knowingly.
‘I don’t get it!’ said Theodora, her head still turned away from the group.
‘You will when you’re older,’ said Eliza.
‘But I am older!’ said Theodora, coughing a little bit of blood onto a hanky.
‘Don’t get mad, Theodora, you may die.’
Theodora began to hiccup acid.
‘At any rate, after the joke, Flemington took Brevillia by the cord and asked her to dance. And Wallace, me to dance. That left Henry and Richard to dance with those hideous McGonnigal twins with the expected inheritance. We danced two Viennese waltzes, a polka and even a tarantella. Then we took a break for some guinea-fowl skewers. And after that we danced the mazurka, and by the time it was finished, well, would you believe it, but we are both engaged to be married!’
‘Oh, splendour! Terrific! Simply wonderment!’ said Eliza, overjoyed with happiness for her beautiful sisters and driven to ecstasy by the realisation that she may not have to marry Gene to save them all from abject poverty.
‘No!’ said Theodora, expelling particles of lung from her mouth. ‘No! No! No! Brevillia cannot be engaged before I!’ And with that Theodora stood up from the couch.
‘Theodora, you mustn’t stand up!’ said Eliza.
‘I believe I will take a turn about the snow with Gene,’ said Theodora, with the calmness of a hatchet.
‘What on earth is Gene doing out in the snow?’ asked Marina. ‘If I cared more for his welfare, I would have mentioned earlier that Brevillia and I saw his britches outside, dangling from the mulberry tree.’
‘Well,’ said Eliza, ‘I thought it might be best for everyone, by which I mean myself, if Gene were to spend a long time outside.’
‘I’m going outside!’ rasped Theodora, ignored by all.
‘He is rather fat for a boy. Perhaps he will look leaner without those britches adding to his girth,’ said Marina, and Eliza swallowed a tablespoon’s worth of vomit.
‘Six, Five, Four, Five, Six,’ said Brevillia as she coiled her cord around her two favourite sisters.
‘Oh, Brevillia,’ said Eliza. ‘Do you really mean that?’
‘Oh, what a lovely thing to say!’ Eliza gave her a big hug, and Marina started to tell them both about Wallace, who had inherited a clock-making business from his father. While she was explaining how his delicate passion for time had made him an excellent dancer, Theodora mustered all her strength and walked towards the door. Her palsied fingers could not quite turn the handle, so she fell on it and, as her scabrous body slid off, the handle turned and the door opened. With that, Theodora crawled out into the blistering snow.
Within moments, her knees and elbows were wet and the snot, permanently dribbling between her nose and mouth, had frozen stiff. She started to grunt as her vocal cords seized and the tallowy hairs on her head became angry, thin icicles. The garden sloped ever downwards, and soon enough she began to roll, further and further, deep into that untamed place, over brambles and briars, tearing her nightdress and scratching her face. Eventually, she came on an embankment.
She had crashed into a lugging wet creature. At first, she thought it was a small, fat bear, but then she listened to the shallow breaths coming from its great body and felt its smooth, naked, babyish skin.
‘Can’t talk,’ it said, spitting out a chunk of wolf, which landed in Theodora’s gasping mouth. ‘Give that back,’ it said slowly between whistling inhalations, ‘I ate that first.’
Theodora returned the piece of wolf flesh to her brother’s mouth.
Back inside the house, the three happy sisters held a late-night rehearsal for their upcoming production of Hamlet, to be staged in the pantry that coming spring. Eliza was tough but constructive with her criticism of Marina’s breastful leading man. As for her other sister, she lavished the highest praise on Brevillia and her thought-provoking portrayal of Yorick.
Meanwhile, in an effort to warm herself, Theodora stuck her hands as best she could under the feverish, warm body of her brother, where she found, nestled between his swollen buttocks, the butter knife.
Back in the house, Eliza pulled out the scrapbook of programs, reviews and memorabilia from their productions, including the famous School for Scandal, where Brevillia stole the show as an extremely convincing inkwell. Then there was the re-enactment of the birth of Christ, where Brevillia played a bale of hay with the tenderest sincerity, and who could forget the stage production of Jane Eyre, in which Brevillia played a stoic Mr Rochester?
Outside, Theodora reefed the knife from its fleshy knife block. Once in full possession of it, she stood up and channelled all her sopping jealousy into the courage of a walrus, then floppily edged her way back to the house.
Inside, Eliza had taken Marina into another room to go over her ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech, while Brevillia rehearsed being Yorick alone on the settee. Brevillia was just practising how to evoke a sense of the inexorable passing from this life to the next when Theodora burst through the doors bloody, phlegmy and angrier than a wrinkly redcurrant.
‘Brevillia! You will listen to me.’ Theodora kept perfect, steely eye contact with her sister as she panted in the doorway, supporting herself on the frame with one hand, the other pointing the butter knife at Brevillia. ‘I find your engagement to a gentleman discourteous’ – she began to inch closer – ‘impertinent’ – closer still – ‘and untimely!’
‘Shut up shut up!’
At this point, Theodora was right on top of her. ‘Say goodnight, Brevillia!’
And with that Theodora plunged the knife right into one of Brevillia’s rectangular back slots.
As the knife went in, Theodora began to shake. She shook and shimmied and her insides went blue. Her wet clothes began to smoke and her hair shot up in flames.
‘I. AM. THEODORA!’
And with that she fell backwards like a plank of wood and died on the floor.
Eliza and Marina had rushed back down, having heard the kerfuffle from their rehearsal room. They stood in the doorway, frozen.
‘Brevillia!’ cried Marina. ‘You’re okay? And your beauty remains!’
‘Oh, Brevillia,’ said Eliza, hastening to her side and wrapping her lovingly in a tea cosy, ‘this was not your fault.’
The next day, Brevillia, Marina and Eliza took Theodora outside to bury her in the garden next to Father and Mother under the mulberry tree, where they conducted a short service.
‘It is a shame Theodora mysteriously conflagrated. But if there is a blessing to be had, I believe she will be less scrofulous in the afterlife,’ said Eliza, concluding the ceremony by throwing Theodora’s snot rags and bedpan in the ground with her. The other girls nodded in solemn agreement.
On the way back, the sisters stumbled upon the lifeless body of Gene next to a clump of wolf bones; dead from over-consumption, the newest variety of consumption known to medical science. Eliza put the wolf bones in her mourning apron, and the sisters vowed to remember to bury him in the spring when he decomposed to a manageable carrying size.
Marina married Huffington the clock-maker and they had efficient synchronised relations for many years, spawning three OmegasTM, two boysTM and a SwatchTM. Brevillia, having turned down Flemington because of his views on the nationalisation of the banks, married a Rockefeller. Eliza made a potent wolf-bone stock. Upon eating it for the first time, an ingrown hair on her chin disappeared. She patented it Grandma Killgene’s Miracle Science CompoundTM, grabbed her carpetbag, blew out the fire and left the estate to begin a new life with a travelling medicine show.
And the leaves changed from green to red to brown to rot to whit to woo. Goodnight.